I recently watched the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie, The Woman in Green. Released on the 27th of July, 1945, it was the eleventh Sherlock Holmes film in the series starring Rathbone and Bruce.
Interestingly, there were fourteen films in the series and they were released between 1939 and 1946. Though it wasn’t on a perfectly regular schedule, that’s an average of one movie per 6.85 months. It’s also curious that this ran from very slightly before World War II to very slightly after it—it’s curious in particular because the second world war is generally taken as the end of the golden age of detective fiction. With it, tastes changed.
In fact, the Wikipedia article on the series says something about this—the first two films were made by 20th Century Fox while the remaining twelve were made by Universal Studios, and part of the explanation given for why Fox lost interest was:
their decision to withdraw from further productions was also because the Second World War meant that “foreign agents and spies were much more typical and topical than the antiquated criminal activities of Moriarty and the like”.
Anyway, it was very interesting seeing the series I’d heard about before, with Basil Rathbone being the definitive Sherlock Holmes until Jeremy Brett came along. Supposedly there are those who still prefer Rathbone, but for my money Jeremy Brett perfectly captured the Holmes of the stories. Or at least in the first two series; Brett’s declining health did negatively affect the later Holmes films.
But even with Jeremy Brett being the better Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone had a larger impact, and in that sense was definitive. This is especially true of references in other works, including parodies and spoofs; people who have never seen Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes have seen imitations of it. It’s probably also a large contributor to the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” being well known (since it never appears in the original stories).
The Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies are especially curious, as the definitive Sherlock Holmes, because they’re not at all faithful to the original Conan Doyle stories. They sometimes borrow plot elements from the original stories, but are mostly just original creations.
Also very interesting is that after the first two, they were updated to modern times—modern at the time they were made, that is. People drove around in cars, rather than horse-drawn cabs, and made frequent use of the telephone. This has a curious effect since the mid-1940s is a time which is now a historical setting for us. Instead of being in the distant past of the Victorian times, it’s in the distant past of the 1940s; it still feels quite old. In fat, 1945 is 55 years away from 1890 but 73 years away from March of 2019, in which year I’m writing this post. The updated setting is still closer, culturally and technologically, to the original stories than it is to the modern day.
As to the specifics, I think that Basil Rathbone does a good job as Holmes. I do dislike the bufoonish character that Watson was turned into, though Nigel Bruce did play that character well.
The story is a curious one. Since readers will have had at least 73 years to have seen the movie, I will not withhold spoilers. And there isn’t much of a point to it; figuring out what’s going on takes up only about the first third of the story.
There is a series of murders of young women going on in London, with nothing to connect the women except that in each case the right forefinger is surgically removed after death. The police can make nothing of it and call Sherlock Holmes in to investigate. As Inspector Gregson is talking with Sherlock Holmes over a drink in a particular bar, they see Sir George Ferrick with a young lady. He leaves with the young lady, goes to her (remarkably luxurious and spacious) apartment, they talk over music and wine, and then Sir George wakes up in a cheap boarding house right next to the scene of one of the murders. He goes back to the apartment of the young woman and asks what happened last night. She tells him that he seemed offended and left in a distracted mood. Then a man enters the apartment and talks with Ferrick. He claims to have seem Ferrick murder the young woman and returns something which he claims Ferrick dropped when putting the severed finger into his pocket. He blackmails Ferrick.
Then a young woman who turns out to be the daughter of Sir George comes to Sherlock Holmes and tells him the story of her seeing her father bury something in the garden and how she dug it up and it turned out to be a woman’s finger, and she’s worried, and won’t he come to help. He does, but it’s too late—Sir George was murdered in his library, clutching a packet of matches from the establishment where Holmes saw him with the young woman.
Holmes deduces that the murders are set-ups to blackmail men who are somehow made to believe that they committed the murders, and that professor Moriarty is behind it.
This is about halfway through the movie, the rest of the movie is about how Holmes catches professor Moriarty.
Catching professor Moriarty involves a visit from the professor at Sherlock Holmes’s apartment, an attempt on Sherlock Holmes’s life by a hypnotized sniper from the empty building opposite, a visit to the Mesmer club, meeting the young woman who lured Sir George into the trap and hypnotized him, pretending to let her hypnotize him, and then the police rushing in to save the day, followed by Moriarty’s off-screen demise while trying to escape.
The main mystery of the story is an interesting device. The question which occupies a good ten minutes of the film—I still find it a little odd that the mystery is only half the movie, if that—is what could possibly connect these seemingly random murders. And the answer is a curious one: what connects them is nothing about the victim, but rather about the marks—the people who are being set up to be blackmailed for the crimes. It’s a clever and a workable mystery, though its solution depends almost entirely on Sherlock Holmes happening to have witnessed the titular woman in green seducing Sir George Ferrick. It does at least happen prior to the knowledge doing Holmes any good, but it’s still pure happenstance, which makes it not very satisfying.
Ultimately, the movie is not really about the mystery nearly so much as it is about showing off Basil Rathbone playing Sherlock Holmes. Which works for a movie, since Basil Rathbone is very charismatic.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend the movie except for historical purposes, but I will say that it is quite interesting for those purposes.
I finally broke down and saw the movie The Last Jedi. It’s bad. It’s quite bad. It’s not quite as bad as Battlefield Earth but I unironically prefer Space Mutiny to it (and I mean without Mike and the bots to help). But since I am diverted by human folly, let’s go through this train-wreck of a film, train car by train car.
First, there’s the title. Not the subtitle, The Last Jedi, but the title: Star Wars VIII. One way of considering this film is as the eighth movie in a series, and thus a sequel to seven other movies. Considered that way, however, it is far worse than Battlefield Earth and worse even than Monster A-Go-Go. Considered as a sequel, it’s probably worse than The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Gave Up Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies. Since I think that reviews are always more enjoyable when they take the movie in the best light possible, I’m going to pretend—for the sake of this review—that The Last Jedi is a stand-alone movie. This removes a long list of contradictions, out of character actions, and sheer stupidity from needing to be mentioned, while not detracting from the movie in any way, shape, or form. (Actually, I’m going to cheat this slightly and assume the audience is familiar with what the one reference in the film actually refers to. Because even with inconsistency that favors this film, it’s awful.)
This means I don’t need to bother talking about why The Last Jedi was an absolutely awful title following shortly after Return of the Jedi. (If you’re really curious, I did a video on why it’s an awful title.)
So, we start with the opening word crawl:
The FIRST ORDER reigns.
OK, so the First Order is in charge. Got it.
Having decimated the peaceful Republic, Supreme Leader Snoke now deploys his merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy.
OK, so given that the First Order is presently in charge, and Supreme Leader Snoke is presently deploying his merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy, we can safely conclude that the name of the peaceful republic is The First Order.
Only General Leia Organa’s band of RESISTANCE fighters stand against the rising tyranny,
Why are these people the Resistance if the tyranny hasn’t yet taken over? Aren’t they a proper military at this point, then? And why is the First Order not resisting the rising tyranny? When the writer called the First Order a “peaceful republic,” do they mean that it was pacifist and had no military? So General Leia Organa—if the peaceful First Order Republic had no military, who made her a general?—has a band of resistance fighters standing against Supreme Leader Snoke’s attempt to overthrow the First Order and, presumably, install the Second Order. This is a little odd—if the first pan-galactic government was so peaceful, why was Supreme Leader Snoke the first to try to take it over?
certain that Jedi Master Luke Skywalker will return and restore a spark of hope to the fight.
(OK, I’m going to cheat a little and assume that we know what a Jedi Master is.) So, to be clear, the resistance is, at present, completely hopeless. Except for the hope that they will one day have a spark of hope.
Supreme Leader Snoke has not, yet, overthrown the First Order, but they’re completely hopeless anyway. Then why are they still fighting? Do they think that their deaths will serve some purpose despite their certainty that they won’t? Is it their hope that they will one day have a spark of hope that keeps them going?
This reminds me a bit of that insipid church hymn in which we “dare to hope to dream God’s kingdom anew”. (Or words to that effect, I don’t remember the exact phrasing.) Leaving aside the highly questionable theology, since within Christian theology God is creating his kingdom and we’re invited into it, we’re not actively making it in a primary sense, it’s just so extraordinarily tentative. It’s the slightest shade away from not actually doing anything.
In the same way, hoping that one day a spark of hope will be restored is—basically just being hopeless.
But the Resistance has been exposed.
OK, someone needs to explain to the dufus writing this that “the resistance” are the people within a conquered land who are making life harder for the conqueror, and possibly collaborating with a foreign power who will attack from without and overthrow the conqueror. Snoke has not yet taken over, so they are not—yet, anyway—the resistance. They are an opposing army. Or opposing band of guerilla troops. As such, they should not have been in hiding to the point of Snoke not even knowing that they existed. He should have been aware that the opposing military existed—especially when they were his only opposition, what with the peaceful First Order being pacifists and all.
As the First Order speeds toward the rebel base,
Wait, so the First Order has a military after all? And they’re speeding toward Snoke’s base? Are they collaborating with General Leia Organa’s band of guerilla “resistance” fighters? And why the turn of heart for this pacifist republic? And doesn’t his contradict Leia Organa’s band of resistance fighters being the only one standing against Snoke’s rising tyranny? Shouldn’t this have been described as a turn of events?
the brave heroes mount a desperate escape….
Wait, so Snoke and his merciless legions are brave heroes? What?
OK, I think I’ve let the joke of reading the word crawl as it was written go long enough. The First Order is actually the name of Snoke’s organization, and the word crawl simply contradicts itself as to whether Snoke has already won or is still working on winning. General Leia Organa is in fact not the leader of a resistance but the head of the military of a pan-galactic government which has mostly fallen.
In fact, they’ve fallen so much that in the opening scene—why do we get sounds of zooming as the camera zooms by cargo shuttles in space?—the entirety of the military of the Republic now fits on a single space cruiser. They are evacuating their base because Evil Lord Snookie is coming to get them. How do they know this? Your guess is as good as mine. We are never told.
And here we come to a problem with taking the movie as stand-alone. In The Force Awakens, it is set up that Leia is actually the head of an unofficial black ops team operating within the territory of the First Order, who are the remnants of the original Galactic Empire driven back to a small collection of worlds in the outer rim of the galaxy. If caught, Leia’s team will be disavowed by The New Republic and (presumably) (lawfully) executed as spies or traitors. They were exposed because at the end of the previous film the First Order had discovered them becomes of events which happened in that movie. Having just destroyed the mega-weapon of the First Order, the Resistance must flee because the First Order still knows where they are, even if its ultimate weapons is now destroyed. This makes certain things in the opening crawl make more sense, but at the expense of much of the movie.
If you actually know that these guys are not the last hope of the galaxy but a small private guerrilla force operating behind enemy lines, the entire movie is unimportant to the story set in motion by the first movie. The same could be said about the crew of the Millennium Falcon in Empire Strikes Back, except that movie was explicit about it being a small story and the people involved were honest about trying to save their own skins. Plus, Leia was actually (more-or-less) in charge of the rebellion and Han was working to ensure her safety for the sake of the rebellion. And they didn’t give speeches about how they were the last hope for the galaxy. And things happened. Plus it wasn’t entirely them running away. And they were clever. (More on all this later.)
The other major problem is that if you admit that this movie is a sequel to The Force Awakens, you’ve got a plot hole bigger than some of those regions of completely empty space between galaxies which are millions of light-years across. The plot of TFA was driven by the map which had been left behind showing how to get to Luke Skywalker if he was needed again. The Last Jedi just ignored the existence of the map, and had Luke wanting to never be found. This cannot be reconciled; on balance it is much worse to consider TLJ as a sequel to TFA. So let’s proceed as if it weren’t.
As the resistance is loading cargo, they see Star Destroyers come out of hyperspace above the planet they’re on. This is accompanied by a loud popping sound, despite it happening in the vacuum of space. The character who had just been saying that they didn’t have time to load munitions says “oh no”, despite the fact that they are in fact packing up the very last transport and are literally seconds from getting away from their base. Something like “Couldn’t they have waited just one more minute?” would have been far more appropriate. People’s reactions being completely wrong to what they know at the time will be a theme in this movie.
We are then treated to some comic relief. This happens at approximately the same length into the film that we get our first spoken joke in Space Balls, which was actually a comedy film. (It was also a much better action movie than this film is.) Ace pilot Poe Dameron stands alone in an x-wing before the mighty dreadnought of the EmpireFirst Order, and places a prank call to the commander of Lord Snookum’s fleet, General Hux. Hux, despite being in a different ship, takes the call rather than having the x-wing shot because, presumably, the actor had always wanted to be in a Verizon commercial, and wasn’t going to waste this opportunity to sneak in an audition tape. There’s no plausible reason for the character to have done it. Hux monologues about how there will be no terms and the rebelsresistance will all be executed. He could have made this point much more effectively by simply having the x-wing destroyed without answering its phone call, but Rian Johnson apparently believes in tell, don’t show.
Poe pretends to not hear Hux and says that his message is for Hux and he will wait. Hux becomes confused and asks whether the guy on the other end of the call can hear him. This unfunny bit is repeated for a while until Poe finally makes a yo-mama joke at the expense of General Hux’s mother. Hux then, finally, orders the x-wing destroyed, but for some reason no one fires. I suppose not one of his crack bridge staff thought to be ready to fire on the enemy vessel they had come to destroy? That said, they’d probably have just missed, anyway. Competence is not the theme of this movie.
Eventually it is too late and Poe’s plot device is fully charged. Poe presses the button which uses the video-game power-up that had been charging and his special power turns out to be moving really fast for three seconds. Once the power-up’s timer is over, he returns to normal speed. In space. Where there’s no friction.
Not knowing how outer space works is going to be a theme in this movie.
Poe is now too close for the turrets of the Imperial Dreadnought to track his movements quickly enough to hit him and he begins to systematically destroy the turrets. That turrets can’t move fast enough to track small vessels is well established in the Star Wars universe, and even if we take this as a stand-alone movie, this feels somewhat reasonable since big things tend to move slowly. Whether they would move that slowly is a different question, but I think that this is on the edge of allowable.
Once Poe destroys all the turrets, he summons the bombers which had been waiting just off screen where the star destroyers couldn’t see them since we, the audience, couldn’t see them. Apparently the bombers were reclaimed from a junk yard where they were found without engines and lawn mower engines had to be used, because the bombers move absurdly slowly. They crawl across the screen. I’ve seen turtles cross a road more quickly than these bombers. At this point, since the dreadnought has no turrets left, the First Empire is forced to scramble tie fighters.
At this point the one somewhat likable character—the command officer of the Dreadnought—mumbles under his breath that the tie fighters should have been scrambled five minutes ago. And, indeed, this is true. I think it’s meant to make Hux look incompetent—which it does—but this is a strange goal since it:
Makes the villains look like bumbling fools and not threats
Reminds us of the terrible scene we just endured where Hux auditioned for a Verizon commercial
Apparently the Empire Order forgot, at this point, that they still had working turrets on the several star destroyers which were right next to the dreadnought. The whole point of destroying the turrets on the dreadnought was that they would have made short work of the bombers, since the bombers maneuver like tranquilized hibernating bears. But it’s never explained what’s wrong with the turrets on the other star destroyers. If anyone in the entire First Empire fleet had the least idea of how a military works, they’d have gone and stood between the dreadnought and the t-wings.
Actually, they were never actually named but I assume that they’re called t-wings both because they look kind of like the letter T and because they’re slow as tortoises. Unfortunately for them, they’re not armored like tortoises, however; one shot from the smallest tie fighter takes them out. If a star destroyer thought to put itself between its disarmed comrade and the danger it would have destroyed the bombers in, perhaps, 5 seconds.
I mention this not so much to complain about the First Ordpire, but to point out that Poe Dameron is a complete idiot whose daring plans should have led to the certain death of everyone in his command. This is not the proper sense in which a daring hero is daring. A Daring hero should take risks which would be grave for a normal person but reasonable for him given his extraordinary skill. He should take risks that will go terribly wrong if he makes a single mistake, but reliably succeed if he does everything right. He should not be daring in the sense of taking risks that depend on his enemies being complete incompetents.
Please note: this is assuming that the range of a star destroyer’s turbo-lasers is too short for them to have just shot the t-wings from where they were. There’s no reason to believe this was the case, given that they could fire on the Resistance’s heavy cruiser from quite far away. And there were certainly several star destroyers which had a clear shot on the t-wings from where they were.
Please further note that the Firstperial Order never moves its star destroyers close enough to the one heavy cruiser that the Resistance have in order to engage it. Apparently, they’re just there to watch. And the one ship which is actually going to do anything, the Dreadnought, initially targets—not the one heavy cruiser which is the Resistance’s only means of escape—but the empty base that the Resistance has had many hours or days to evacuate into the heavy cruiser. It’s a comparatively small point, but since the star destroyers come out of hyperspace while the cargo ships are still traveling into the heavy cruiser, it would have been a sitting duck or would have had to abandon many cargo ships to certain death. Apparently New Imperial doctrine is to attack the stationary targets first and the mobile targets at your leisure.
Somewhere around here, the attack on the dreadnought is too late and it fires on the rebel base, but that’s OK since the last transport was already leaving when the blast came in. Since everyone is now safely in the air and about to be safely tucked away in the heavy cruiser, PrincessGeneral Leia orders Poe to bring the rebel fleet back so that they can escape. Poe argues that this is the one chance that they’ll get to destroy the dreadnought, which is a fleet-killer. Why that’s important—given that the only people with a fleet of ships are the Emp Order—is never explained.
Also never explained is why the bombers were sent in the first place if they were not intended to attack the dreadnought. In a different movie they could have been sent as a diversion, to force the dreadnought to defend itself and so delay it’s attack on the rebelsistance base in order to give them time to escape. But they didn’t need time to escape. Further, the dreadnought took absolutely no actions to defend itself. It kept going merrily about its business of shooting the abandoned base while tie fighters defended it. Leia orders the retreat of the fighter/bomber craft as if some sort of goal had actually be accomplished by them, yet they did precisely nothing so far, nor could they have done anything.
Leia reiterates her order and Poe turns off his radio. Why Leia does not reiterate her order directly to the t-wings, we are not told. I like John C. Wright’s suggestion that Poe’s hotshot button, instead of turning off his speakers, turns off her microphone. I suspect that the actual answer is that Rian Johnson, the writer/director of this disaster of a film, literally never even thought of the possibility. Or possibly he hates the idea of character development. It would have been easy enough to have her relay the order and for the t-wing pilots to respond that they’re casting their lots with Poe because the dreadnought needs killing. But then Leia would have had to show real leadership. From all appearances in this film, we couldn’t have that.
To forewarn you, dear reader, the next few minutes contain a somewhat higher level of stupid than usual in this movie.
Poe goes to destroy the final turret on the dreadnought but his x-wing takes some damage and his weapons stop working. He then asks the billiard ball robot BB-8 to “do his magic”. So the plucky robot drops down into the area underneath where he normally sits and starts trying to fix a large circuit board.
Let us pause for a moment to note that if an x-wing had a large cavity capable of fitting the astro-mech droid which pilots the ship, that’s where the astromech droid would normally be. There is absolutely no reason to have the droid exposed if there is room to fit him inside where there is at least a modicum of protection. In the original Star Wars, from which this movie obviously drew some minor inspiration, the x-wings were inexpensive and used an astromech droid instead of having their own navigation computer to save on cost. They were extremely light fighters which were lightly armored and barely had room for the droid, so it was forced to sit exposed because, at least, it wouldn’t suffocate in space. One can take some issue with the original x-wing design for not giving the droid so much as a windscreen to protect it from debris in space, but shoe-string budgets can explain the absence of a great many desirable features. If there was a big hollow space into which the droid could be dropped, however, this excuse entirely goes away. But that pails in comparison to what happens next.
The problem appears to be that the electricity is leaking out of the circuit board (more or less as if it were water, except with an animation of sparks), so BB-8 then sticks a mechanical finger onto the circuit board to plug the leak and restore the electricity-pressure which the system needs to function. Unfortunately, with the pressure restored, another damaged section gives way and more electricity leaks from the circuit board. BB-8’s finger sprouts a sub-finger, which then plugs that leak. This is repeated a number of times until BB-8’s mechanical finger looks like a candelabra plugging all of the electricity leaks.
And if you thought that it was not possible for this scene to get any stupider, well, buckle in, because Rian Johnson still has some aces up his sleeve. When a new electricity leak pops, BB-8 is finally out of sub-fingers in his mechanical finger. Is all lost? No! BB-8 removes all of his fingers and then slams is round head into the flat circuit board, plugging all the leaks despite clearly not making contact with most of them.
Because Rian Johnson is either complete idiot or hates the audience with the burning passion of a million death-stars firing simultaneously, this works. The electricty-pressure is finally restored in the circuitry and the x-wing’s weapon system comes to life again. Poe drives it and destroys the last turret, allowing the t-wing bombers to approach. Presumably BB-8 remains with his head rammed into the circuit board until they get back to the cruiser since the electricity leaking out of the circuit board means the x-wing cannot move. This joke is not called back to, however, so we can only guess. Perhaps BB-8 has a spare head he can use for his normal piloting duties while the first head is keeping the electricity inside of the circuit board.
We now get to see what the t-wings are like. It turns out that they are shaped like the letter T because they store bombs in the bottom shaft. Now, when I say “store”, that might conjure up an image of tightly packed munitions, ready to be launched. Instead, picture many rows of extra-large christmas ornaments, all painted black, hung from the walls. They sway when the t-wing moves. Why it never occurred to anyone to hold them in place, lest they take damage from knocking around, no one knows.
At this point, they arm their bombs. I suspect that Rian Johnson literally doesn’t know what it means to arm a bomb. Perhaps he thinks it means something to the effect of turning on lights pointing at the bombs. Maybe he thinks it’s a meaningless phrase that’s just cool to say, like screaming “Geronimo” while jumping out of an airplane. That said, he’s true to the meaning of this phrase, because the least bit of damage to a t-wing causes all of the bombs in it to explode, sending shrapnel into other, nearby t-wings which cause them to explode, too. It seems like the point of this suicide run was the suicide, not the damage caused to the enemy. This is weapons-grade stupid, almost literally.
Next, as they get ready to drop their bombs—more on that in a moment—they open the bomb doors. At this point I should mention that there is a ladder from the bomb area to the cockpit of the ship. And there is no door on the cockpit. There is also a turret-operator on the bottom of the ship who is directly connected to the bomb area, too. Why they do not asphyxiate when all of their air rushes out into the vacuum of space is not mentioned. It could be argued that there was a force-field used to keep the atmosphere in, much like the force fields on the Death Star we saw the imperial transports traverse through into the large cargo bays. We get a clear view of the relevant section of the t-wings, however, and they have no such force field. And if they did, they’d have no need for bomb bay doors.
Perhaps the t-wing crew drink liquid oxygen into their lungs before going on their bombing strolls, then put a tight collar on which doesn’t allow it back up again. Since this is intentionally a suicide run, perhaps they’re just holding their breath because they only expect to live a few more seconds. Who knows? Once the lone bomber that survived the excruciatingly slow crawl to the weak spot on the dreadnought gets over it, there’s a stupid sub-plot involving the pilot being dead and unable to drop the bombs and the gunner needing to climb the latter and retrieve the cartoonish remote control with a single “drop all the bombs at once” big red button to push it. (Note: “big red button” is not a metaphor; the button is large and red.) Somewhere in her attempt she falls down the shaft onto the catwalk at the bottom of the bomb area and breaks her back. She is only able to use her arms, twist, and kick things with great force with her legs. It’s a very specific kind of spinal injury.
There is, however, a very curious thing that happens during it. When she finally manages to get the remote to fall by kicking the ladder with the remote at the top, despite it having been perfectly centered on her, it falls to her side and out the open bomb doors. We very clearly see it at least several feet past the catwalk on which the paralyzed gunner lies. And then we cut to her having just caught the remote. This is the sort of thing which normally should have a commercial break inbetween since its only purpose is to increase the tension so you don’t switch to another channel during the four minutes of commercials which are about to play. In a movie, it serves absolutely no purpose. It didn’t increase the tension, and because it showed two contradictory shots immediately next to each other, only served to destroy all possible suspension of disbelief.
It’s almost inconsequential that her catching the remote is kind of absurd. If you doubt this, have a friend climb with a remote control onto the roof of your house, lie facing up on a bench, have him drop the remote control next to you, and see how often you catch it before it hits the ground. Oh, did I mention that you need to catch it on your right side with your left arm? What is especially egregious about this ridiculous feet is that, given where they showed us the remote before it fell, it should have landed safely on her belly. This is a weird sort of fixing one terrible decision with another when just doing it right would have been far easier.
And then things really get dumb.
When she finally presses the button, the bombs all fall in unison onto the dreadnought below. In space.
Now, in charity I should mention that there is a way to explain this absurdity, though only in some other movie than this one. The star destroyers et al were shown to be in geostationary orbit, but only a few hundred miles up. Geostationary orbit on earth is approximately 22,000 miles up. D’qar, the planet in question, is perhaps a bit smaller than the earth, but still, they are way too close to be in a natural geostationary orbit. So they might be just using repulsor beams to keep themselves up from the planet. (Repulsor beams which constantly change angle in the case of tie fighters, x-wings, etc.) Thus when the repulsor-beam-held-aloft shit stopped holding onto the bombs, they would have dropped in the gravitational field of the planet below.
(The difference in gravity between the surface of a planet and a few hundred miles above the surface of the planet isn’t very high; it’s the difference between being 5,000 miles from the center and 5,200 miles from the center; this isn’t a large change in distance.)
The reason this explanation cannot be used in this movie is that the dreadnought and the ships were not oriented at all correctly for this. And even in general, this would mean that the bombers only work in a gravitation field, since in deep space their bombs would just hang motionless once released, making them rather curiously specific-purpose ships.
So, yeah, that attempt to defend this aside, the bombs fell in what people are calling space-down. It’s the downward direction of whatever visual reference is located nearby in a movie frame.
Compared with this nonsense, the fact they drop every bomb simultaneously—effectively carpet bombing a tiny area—seems almost a minor detail. Dropping the bombs this close together should result in what’s technically called fratricide—the explosion of one bomb not being strong enough or correctly shaped enough to set off the next bomb, but only rearranging it into a shape incapable of detonation. Since these are bombs which need to be armed, they clearly have some sort of detonation mechanism, which would then probably be destroyed by being caught in the explosion of another bomb a few feet away from it. On the other hand, we’ve seen that they can be set off by space junk knocking into them, so I suppose you can take your pick of which part of the movie you want to believe.
One is tempted to assume that Rian Johnson chose to have the bombs dropped in this fashion because—though it was dumber than a bag of Tarquelian numskulls—he thought it looked cool. This is a matter of taste, but the closest analog I can think of is when on a TV game show a bunch of balloons are dumped from a net onto a contestant. If you think that looks really cool, perhaps you’ll think that this was worth it.
There was the further problem that the bombs, forming something of a line up from the target because of their fall, propagate the explosion up and to the bomber, destroying it. Or perhaps the explosion from the Dreadnought destroys the bomber. Either way, it gets caught in the explosion which it caused as parts of its mission, and not because anything happened differently than was planned. From the very beginning, there was no way that the crew would have survived. This was a suicide mission. There was no reason for it to be a suicide mission—they could have planned to drop their bombs from further “up”. As far as we can tell, the rebels are just idiots with a death wish.
Somewhat surprisingly—given that the theme of this movie is unrelenting failure—the bombs actually fall onto the dreadnought and blow it up. No space-wind sweeps them harmlessly away. Why the dreadnought has neither shields nor armor over the part of it where a small explosion will cause the entire thing to explode, no one ever said. Given that the person who dropped the bombs did so as soon as she could, and a while after she was supposed to and they nearly passed the vulnerable spot, this was not a case of a hyper-precise shot being required. Given this obvious weakness in the ship, one is forced to wonder why it didn’t retreat once its defenses were destroyed. It’s not like Poe disabled the engines before the t-wings started their crawl.
Before finally passing on from this wretched scene, there’s one final question I feel duty-bound to ask. Given that the t-wings’ approach was to go in a straight line to a point over the dreadnought and drop bombs onto a football-field sized target, why did they bother with pilots? A droid could do that. Heck, the autopilot program on the t-wings itself should be able to do it. Even pointing them in the right direction, leaving a brick on the accelerator pedal, and then having a timer cut a string holding a hammer above the cartoon button would have accomplished the same thing, but more reliably. What was the point of the human pilots in all of this? And not to harp on it, but why did a cash-rich-but-manpower-poor organization like The Resistance switch from self-piloted weapons like torpedos to manned weapons like bombers?
Not a single thing about this opening makes sense. That’s going to be a pattern.
Once the Resistance ships jump to hyperspace, a hologram of Supreme Leader Snookums (His actual name is “Snoke”, but I’d like to give the character some dignity) appears as a giant floating head and tells General Hux that he did a bad job by utterly failing to destroy the resistance. Though first, he force-chokes Hux, force-slams him to the ground, then force-drags him 10 feet across the dais then lets him go and reprimands him there. Perhaps the actor who played Hux has missed his mark and Snookums was helping? Anyway, despite being force-choked, Hux manages to gasp out that they have the resistance on a string, the implication being that his failure was not complete.
For some reason instead of asking killing Hux and letting his newly promoted second-in-command explain what Hux meant, or just asking Hux what he meant, he then summons Hux to a personal audience. Why they took the time out of chasing the resistance to have Hux travel to a different ship which wasn’t there, isn’t explained. How long this took is not mentioned. Presumably it took a while because Snoke’s ship was not nearby. That’s OK, though, because after this scene is over Rian Johnson promptly ignores it and Snoke’s ship is just with the fleet and no time is lost.
Be that as it may, the next thing we see after Hux said that they have the resistance on a string is Hux standing in Supreme Leader Snookums’ throne room with Snookums congratulating Hux on his brilliant plan. “On a string, indeed” were, I think, his words. This serves to establish that Snookums didn’t know about the hyper-space tracking device which Hux had used, though it doesn’t explain why losing the Dreadnought was completely inconsequential. Perhaps Rian Johnson had already forgotten that it had happened. So why didn’t Snookums know that his fleet had developed a hyperspace tracking device? Did no one think to mention this amazing invention to their Supreme Leader? Did they just assume that with his force powers he should have known? Speaking of which, why didn’t he know it with his force powers? But that’s OK, this plot hole is about to be covered over with another plot hole.
Hux leaves and the the darth-vader wannabe, Kylo Ren, comes in and kneels before Supreme Leader Snookums. General Hux actually sniggers at how stupid Kylo Ren’s costume is as they pass on the bridge connecting the throne room to the elevator. Kylo Ren just takes this in stride because, apparently, Hux’s impression of him is accurate.
Once Hux is out of the room, Supreme Leader Snookums explains to Kylo Ren the gaping plot hole of why Hux is still alive.
You wonder why I keep a rabid cur in such a place of power? A cur’s weakness, properly manipulated, can be a sharp tool.
At first, I thought that Snookums had said “rabbit cur.” That wouldn’t make a ton of sense, but Hux had minced his way through all of his scenes up to this point so it would at least have been an intelligible metaphor. “Rabid cur” just makes no sense. Here’s the definition of “cur”:
1a : a mongrel or inferior dog b : a medium-sized hunting and working dog with a short coat that was developed in the southern U.S. and is sometimes considered to comprise one or more breeds 2 : a surly or cowardly fellow
Here is the definition of rabid:
1a : extremely violent : FURIOUS b : going to extreme lengths in expressing or pursuing a feeling, interest, or opinion rabid editorials a rabid supporter 2 : affected with rabies
The only way these two things can go together is if Snookums means definition 2 of rabid, i.e. afflicted with rabies, and was referring to the way that rabies victims exhibit a fear of water. And, to be fair, there were was not so much as a water cooler on the bridge of Hux’s ship. Perhaps Snookums means that at a crucial moment he’s go to drive Hux into a furious rage by threatening him with a squirt gun?
That possibility aside, this explanation makes no sense. It comes after Hux’s loss of the dreadnought ship at he hands of a tiny rebel force. Hux wasn’t cowardly, he was incompetent. Snookums is saying that he keeps an incompetent fool in charge of his military because, properly managed, an incompetent fool can be quite competent. This might have had some slight hope for making sense if we didn’t just see that it was false. Depending on whether we count The Force Awakens, the First Order just lost either the most powerful weapon in their fleet or the two most powerful weapons in their fleet, both under Hux’s watch, and within hours of each other. Frankly, the excuse that he has the Resistance on a string should actually worry Snookums more. If they were to catch up to the Resistance while Hux is still in charge, they’d probably lose even more ships. (In fact, come to think of it, they do lose more ships because they caught up to the resistance with Hux in charge.)
Then we get to one of the more perplexing scenes in the movie. Snookums tells the kneeling Kylo Ren that he’s a pretentious punk who hasn’t amounted to anything. So far as I can tell, this is strictly accurate. The scene tries to portray Snookums as a cruel and heartless dictator, but it seems to just be tough love.
Then Kylo Ren speaks. I forget his exact line, I think it was “But I’ve given everything to you”. Fortunately I had the subtitles on when I was watching the movie because Kylo Ren sounded like he was talking through a poorly made child’s walkie-talkie. It was genuinely difficult to understand what he was saying. Now, I understand that this serves to “show, not tell” that Kylo Ren is an even more incompetent fool than Hux. It does serve that purpose; Kylo Ren is clearly shown to be a simpering, whining child wearing an unlicensed Darth Vader Halloween costume because he (wrongly) thinks it makes him look cool.
OK, fair enough. It does accomplish that. But this is just saying that the movie is intentionally bad.
And then we come to the incompetence of making it hard for the audience to understand what a main character is saying. If making the fearsome bad guy seem immature, foolish, vain, and stupid was really a goal, they should have borrowed yet one more thing from Spaceballs and had Kylo Ren do a fake deep voice when his mask is down. This would literally have been better a better decision than having him talk through a cheap child’s walkie talkie. It would be in no way less serious, and at least then we wouldn’t have needed subtitles to know what he was saying.
And it seems that, on some level, Rian Johnson realized this. Why he decided to hang a lampshade on it rather than just forget about the mask—given that he forgot about the map that formed the core of the plot of the previous movie—is inexplicable. But I will admit that it was somewhat satisfying to see the mask smashed on the ground when Kylo Ren left the elevator. It’s not like one could possibly have suspended their disbelief during this ridiculous movie anyway.
Oh, one other thing: while Supreme Leader Snookums was entirely correct that Kylo Ren’s mask was ridiculous, he was in no position to say it. He was wearing a cross between a smoking jacket and a bathrobe, in shiny gold lamé. Plus he was bad CGI when he could easily have been a guy in makeup. He’s the last person who should be talking about bad character design.
Some time later, back on the Resistance ship, the ex-storm-trooper named Finn wakes up and bonks his head on a clear plastic dome over his head and shoulders in what appears to be a storage closet which had been hastily converted to a hospital room. (Actually, I can’t be sure of that. We’re never given a wide-enough angle shot to see whether there are brooms lined up against the wall.)
Finn then does what any sensible person would do—instead of looking around to figure out where he is and what’s going on, he pushes the plastic dome off and jumps up out of bed. Presumably these are his storm-trooper instincts since he was raised from birth as one. I can see why they would want storm troopers to hop up and disturb the medical equipment immediately upon waking up in sick bay.
Finn then pratfalls out of bed and various colors of medical liquid squirt in different directions. This is a little later than the unappealing-liquids joke would have been made in a Mel Brooks parody, but not too far off. What it’s doing in an ostensibly serious movie, I haven’t a clue. Perhaps the actor personally offended Rian Johnson and this is his revenge.
There are no medical personnel, medical droids, or even a little bell that goes “ding” to get someone’s attention. This is consistent with storing the injured fellow in a hastily converted broom closet because it was an emergency, but not very consistent with them later being said to have a medical frigate among their three ships. Why was the injured man not put aboard the medical frigate? If they put the injured people in broom closets on the main cruiser, what do they put on the medical frigate? Is that where they store their brooms?
Be that as it may, Finn then wanders out of sick—well, not bay, it’s too small for that; let’s say sick-room, and looks about for someone to explain where he is and what’s going on. Apparently whoever stuck him in the room and forgot about him didn’t so much as write him a note saying which side’s ship he was on.
We now come to the subject of what Finn is wearing. I’m not sure that human language is capable of expressing just how dumb it is; if you picture the bastard child of a water bed and a sumo-suit, you won’t be far off. Except that it has many tubes coming off of it, all of which are leaking. Oh, and it’s made of transparent plastic, so if the camera did not artfully frame it out you would see Finn’s genitals and buttocks. And since the camera does artfully put Finn’s crotch out of frame, Poe mentions this so the audience knows just how funny the scene is. I’m almost surprised the movie didn’t have a laugh track.
Next we see Leia slapping Poe Dameron and telling him that he’s demoted. Her exact words were, I believe, “you’re demoted”. To what, she didn’t say. Who was replacing him as commander, she didn’t say. I honestly think that the idea was that his duties and responsibilities weren’t changing, he was just getting a pay cut. I think this because, as far as I can tell in the next scene, his duties and responsibilities didn’t change. We’re never shown his pay stubs, however, so they may not have followed through on the pay cut, either.
There’s some discussion about how one can’t solve every problem by getting in an x-wing and blowing things up. This is true, but since Poe was directing the t-wings, somewhat irrelevant. His coordinated strategy might have been dumb as a box of brainless fish but he was executing a strategy that coordinated the workings of many people. He didn’t just jumping in an x-wing and think he could do everything himself. This part of the dressing-down of Poe by Leia was, so far as I can tell, cribbed from some other movie in which the hotshot doesn’t wait for his team but instead takes extraordinary chances by doing everything himself. It’s a pity that’s not the movie we’re watching—it’s almost certainly a better one than this is.
But, taking the scenes in this movie as being in this movie, the doctrine that one can’t solve all of one’s problems by using military spacecraft to blow things up is a very odd doctrine for a paramilitary group of guerrillas whose only reason for existence is to solve problems by blowing things up. If Leia really thinks that diplomacy is superior to war, why is she a general instead of a diplomat?
But even that is from a different movie, where people argue over war versus diplomacy. In this movie, Leia’s point seems to be that one often solves one’s problems by running away. This is actually sometimes true in real life but ridiculously out of place in an adventure movie set in space. In real life it is sometimes the most effective strategy to not answer the phone when the bill collectors call, or to skip town and take up a new name in order to avoid child support payments. We don’t go to the movies to see real life.
Now, to be fair, it would be possible for Leia to have told Poe (for what we get the impression is the hundreth time) that they are not yet part of the military force which stands a chance of direct combat against the First Order and their job, right now, is to bleed the First Order by striking and running away. She could have told him that he knew this when he signed up; that guerrilla fighting is not glorious but it is effective and that what they need right now is success, not glory. That would have been possible, but it was not what actually happened. Nor would it have made sense in this movie, given that he sacrificed about a dozen people’s lives in order to remove a weapon which would have easily killed tens of thousands of people on their side. What he did is exactly the sort of thing guerrilla forces are for. So what we’re left with is a scene from another movie that was portrayed badly, and if done well, still wouldn’t have fit in this movie.
That said, I think that this cribbing of scenes is a better explanation for what’s going on that the idea of it being an expression of misandry. If you pay attention to this cinematic disaster, it consists almost entirely of tropes which the writer didn’t understand. This scene reads to me exactly like the early scene where a hotshot doesn’t work with his teammates but pulls victory out of the jaws of defeat anyway, expects to be lauded for being so awesome, and is torn a new one by his commanding officer for relying on luck rather than executing the far more reliable plan that he was supposed to only be a part of. It’s not easy to recognize because it’s so badly executed, but structurally, that very much seems to be what it thought it was.
You can see this in the next moment, actually, because when the star destroyers jump out of hyperspace next to the rebels, Poe asks, “Permission to jump in an x-wing and blow things up?” and Leia gratefully replies, “Granted.” If you look, you an recognize a lot of Top Gun (with Poe Dameron as Maverick) in The Last Jedi. Not stolen well, mind you, but you can see the influence. For example, later on, Vice-Admiral Holdo (the purple-haired woman in the evening dress) takes the role of Tom Skerritt’s character, Viper. She is in charge and alternates between tough-as-nails and fatherly. Well, motherly, but hopefully you get the point. Rian Johnson doesn’t seem to understand how human interaction works so he’s limited to stealing from movies he saw in his youth.
When the star destroyers come out of hyperspace Supreme Leader Snookum’s personal ship, The Supremacy, is with them. How, is never explained. It wasn’t with them when they tracked the rebel fleet jumping into hyperspace. This is a minor point, or rather, would be, if the location of the hyperspace-tracker were not a major plot point later on, where it is established that the tracker is on Snookum’s ship. It’s not stated whether Hux had a tracker standing at the ready to install on Snookum’s ship as soon as he actually told Snookums about the technology or whether he had secretly installed it on Snookum’s personal ship beforehand. Either is ludicrous, and they exhaust the possibilities. (Unless, of course, the characters who infiltrate Snookum’s ship later on were completely mistaken and were breaking into a storage closet. In this movie, that’s a real possibility.)
Also, why is The Supremacy shaped like a giant delta kite? I half expected to see a droid in the bottom of the screen holding onto a string which was attached to it. Star Wars heavy ships are normally longer than they are wide, presumably because the amount of energy necessary to push a ship through a hyperspace conduit goes up with the square of the cross-section, or some such. The only exception I can think of in large ships is the Death Star, and that was built at the height of the Empire’s power as a show of force. The First Order is a tiny shadow of what the Empire was; why are they indulging in wasteful projects to build one-off megaships?
Further, the design of The Supremacy might have been understandable if the leading edges of the wings were covered in large guns. There was no indication of this. In fact, for all that I can recall, The Supremacy might have been unarmed.
At this point, Poe and Leia consider the significance of the ImperialFirst Order fleet jumping out of hyperspace only moments after them. They were tracked! This means that if they were to jump to hyperspace again they would just be tracked again and the First Order will just show up moments later, again! Also, they only have enough fuel for one more jump to hyperspace!
That last part was, I suspect, intended to head off the idea of just jumping to hyperspace over and over again until they lose the Imperial Order fleet. But consider what it means: the Resistance, a guerrilla force behind enemy lines, kept their ships almost empty of fuel. The principle doctrine of guerrilla warfare is to dash in to a target then dash out to safety. So either the Resistance is failing in basic competence as a guerrilla organization, or they are so badly funded that they can’t afford the basic tools of their trade. So either they deserve to be destroyed or the EmpireFirst Order is redundant because they were about to collapse anyway. The fact that they didn’t have a next base lined up means that they didn’t have any contingency plans for what to do if their current base is discovered, which points to gross incompetence. Still, either way is bad.
But wait, it gets worse.
When they came out of hyperspace and before the First Order arrived the Resistance only had enough fuel for one more jump into hyperspace. They’re not, at that point, anywhere they want to be. The establishing shot of their location makes it look like they’ve just jumped to a random place in the middle of space. And, in fact, they don’t even know where it is they want to go next—Leia said that their next step is finding a new base. That means that the new base needs to have a ready supply of hyperspace fuel or they’re going to be marooned at it unable to take part in galactic warfare ever again. Either they’re going to have to establish their new base on a populated world or their next stop is actually at a spaceship gas station. The fact that they don’t mention this suggests that they were actually unaware of it. It’s a funny image to think of the resistance showing up to some uninhabited planet, setting up a base, then realizing when they next want to do some guerrilla attack on the First Order that they are marooned and must now become farmers to try to get through the coming winter.
Which would, sadly, be a better story than what actually happens.
Incidentally, why they want a base at all is never explained. If everyone fits aboard their one capital ship (plus a medical frigate and some other little ship) it would make far more sense for a band of guerrillas to base themselves from it rather than tying themselves down to a planet. This is of small importance compared to all the other idiocy going on but it’s worth noting lest one think that anything about his movie makes sense, on any level.
After his tough-love session with Supreme Leader Snookums, Kylo Ren had gotten in an elevator and smashed his mask into bits. This scene was poorly shot and poorly acted but, other than that, did make a sort of sense. Kylo Ren was an ineffectual loser who showed promise but so far hasn’t amounted to anything, and he’s turned his back on his idiot attempts to look cool which only resulted in people laughing at him. That’s more appropriate to a movie like The Goonies—actually the children in The Goonies were more mature than Kylo Ren, but hopefully you get my point—but it is actually a legitimate bit of character development. Unfortunately, it is not alluded to in any other scene (except, perhaps, the assassination of Snookums) so it’s hard to consider it as character development. At least he’s not wearing a stupid mask that it makes it hard to tell what he’s saying, though, so it’s a net win.
Kylo then storms off and shouts to two random officers who were standing outside of the elevator to get his ship ready. It might have been interesting to learn whether he knew who they were, they knew what he meant, or whether they in fact had anything to do with getting his tie fighter ready. Presumably as the second most important person in the EmpireFirst Order, he has more than one ship. And no one but Hux and Supreme Leader Snookums know that they’re actually tracking the Resistance through hyperspace. However, if this was just his way of covering his tears to officers he didn’t even recognize, it might have been trivially significant. Or at least mildly interesting.
But, whoever those characters were, Kylo Ren is next seen aboard his tie fighter—the cool kind, with curved wings—rushing at the main ship of the Resistance. He flies at the main ship, strafing the surface, then flies down the launch tube for the resistance fighter planes. Apparently no one ever thought to put a door on the tube or even some laser turrets inside this unarmored opening in the ship. He launches a missile and in one strike destroys all of the Rebels’ space fighters.
Then presumably he backs out of the tube? It would have been hard for him to go forward then turn around inside the hanger he just destroyed. I’ve got no idea since the next we see him is targeting the bridge of the same cruiser. He then senses by the Force that his mom is on the bridge and, for no obvious reason, doesn’t fire. Given what a big deal he made about killing his father without hesitation this seems out of character, but I suppose it’s meant to show how he’s conflicted. Later on, Snookums says that he stoked the conflict in Ren’s soul, so perhaps that’s meant to refer to this.
It doesn’t matter, however, because other tie fighter pilots shoot the bridge for Kylo Ren. I’m tempted to side with Mr. John C. Wright when he said that’s because no main character is going to be allowed to achieve anything, however small, in this movie. However, I think that the actual explanation is that this is yet another attempt to lift a meaningful scene from another movie and transplant it here. In particular, the scene where a character who is flirting with evil considers doing an evil deed, then holds back from it but it’s then done by someone on his side, and he sees just how evil he was considering being. Often he will then strike down the member of his own side for doing what he was going to, then almost invariably he repents of being on the bad side and turns to the good side. Like most tropes that Rian Johnson is trying to use, this one is hard to recognize because he doesn’t follow through. He subverts all of the tropes that he uses, so that the audience is in a state of constant surprise. The problem with this is that tropes exist because they encode human meaning efficiently. By subverting all of his tropes Rian Johnson ends up making his movie meaningless. It’s a constant surprise because you constantly expect the movie to be leading somewhere; every thwarting of expectations is not from one meaning to another, deeper meaning, but from meaning to meaninglessness.
That said, success can only be judged according to someone’s goals. To give credit where credit is do, I was in a constant state of surprise throughout this movie. About how bad it was, granted. But still, I was continually surprised. So, mission accomplished, I guess.
Be that as it may, the nameless and faceless tie fighter pilots next to Kilo Ren blow up the bridge of the Brave Sir Robin (we’re never told the ship’s actual name, so that will do as well as anything else). This causes explosive decompression to blast Leia, Admiral Akbar, and some nameless Resistance bridge crew into space. This is, of course, unfortunate, but it’s not a terrible way for an old soldier to finally die—with his boots on, in combat. It wouldn’t be great, or even good—since the attack is basically a sucker-punch—but it wouldn’t be a giant middle finger to the fans. So of course Leia does not die like this.
Before we can find out what happened to Leia, the tie fighters are recalled because the rebel fleet, being faster, has outrun the capital ships of the First Order and they are are no longer able to give their tie fighters cover. Why the tie fighters need cover is completely unspecified; it is well established in this movie that small ships move too fast for large ships to accurately target them; the only effective weapons against small ships are other small ships. And Kylo just destroyed all of the Resistance’s small ships.
To add insult to injury, it makes no sense for small ships to be faster than large ships. Large ships can have proportionally larger engines than small ships can; this is why in real life large ships are faster than small ships. Also, the ships aren’t actually faster, they just have a lead. Throughout the next 8 hours or so of the First Order chasing the Resistance, the gap between them never widens.
And then, of course, there’s the massive plot hole which Rian Johnson didn’t even bother to hang a lampshade on. The Resistance fleet is low on hyperspace fuel. The First Order fleet isn’t. While the Resistance fleet is stuck crawling along at sub-light speed, the First Order capital ships could just hyperspace jump next to the resistance ships. Or they could take a page from pack-hunters and have some of their ships hyper-space jump in front of the resistance fleet and some keep following from behind so that the resistance is surrounded. Instead, general Hux decides to stay behind them and just fire uselessly at their rear shields from time to time so that the resistance doesn’t put its guard down. Being a dastardly evil villain, he’d hate for the Resistance to fall into a trap, I guess? I’m not kidding, by the way. He literally says to keep firing “so they don’t forget we’re here”.
Moving on, remember how I said that Leia doesn’t die in combat? Yeah. After some unspecified amount of time long enough for her to form ice crystals on her skin, she comes back to life or wakes up, depending on how you choose to interpret this, and then flies like Mary Poppins back to what used to be the bridge of the Brave Sir Robin. No force power has been established in this—or any other movie—which allows dead force users to resurrect themselves, nor has there been a force power established which works while a force user is unconscious (if you want to stretch things to take that charitable interpretation). Nor does it come up again, nor is anyone impressed by it, nor does anyone seem to care that it happened past being a little surprised and a little glad to see Leia again.
In fact, Leia’s ejection into space followed by her magical space walk has no consequence of any kind in this movie. She could just as easily have been in the hallway on her way back from the bathroom when the missiles hit and bumped her head from the impact; no subsequent scene would have had to be changed in the slightest.
Perhaps the stupidest part of this whole deus ex machina is that, to bring Leia back in, the people on the inside of the ship just open the door. Then she just walks in. Then they close the door again. This is a bit like that joke interview question:
Q: How do you put an elephant in the refrigerator? A: Open the door and put him in. Q: How do you put a giraffe in the refrigerator? A: Open the door and put it in? Q: No, you open the door, take the elephant out, then put he giraffe in.
Except in the joke, the size of the refrigerator is not specified. This movie is (within the story) taking place in a space ship in outer space. And yet the air from inside of the pressurized ship does not rush out and blow Leia back into deep space; in fact, a little bit of air leaks from the vacuum of space into the ship. This makes negative sense.
In comparison to the above, it’s almost nit-picking to note that when Leia was ejected into space, she became a free-floating object, while the ship continued to be using its engines to push itself forward. This means that not only would she be far away from the ship because of explosive decompression, but that she would also be very far behind it and getting further behind it every second. She not only needs to move towards the ship sideways, but needs to be able to accelerate faster than the ship in the direction it’s going. In other words, not only can Leia fly in space without a space suit, she can fly faster than the cruiser which can, itself, outrace an Imperial star destroyer. I bed if Rian Johnson had written himself into enough of a corner, she would have been able to use the force to jump to hyperspace, too.
The inclusion of this scene is absolutely mystifying. It was not just dumb, but fractally dumb. Every part of it was dumb. Every part of every part was dumb. Zoom in: dumb. Zoom out: dumb. On every scale, it’s dumb.
I actually wonder if this scene wasn’t included because Carrie Fisher had some sort of medical problem during shooting and some explanation for her change in ability to stand unsupported was deemed necessary. Frankly, a silent-movie-style text card saying “between filming the earlier scenes and the later scenes, Ms. Fisher suffered a [medical issue] and could no longer stand unaided. She bravely soldiered on, however, and we ask that you use your imagination to help her out” would have been better. Or no explanation at all. Having Leia space-walk back to the ship only to fall into a coma sounds like it was invented by a pair of drunk fratboys competing to see who could come up with the stupider plot to a Spaceballs sequel.
And then, safely aboard the ship, Leia falls unconscious and is rushed to the medical closet which formerly housed Finn. This is yet another nonsensical change in tone since Leia just used a new-found force power without effort to bring herself back from death (or unconsciousness). There was no strain; she was serene throughout. For some reason we don’t even see what she does when she walks in; we just cut to the scene of her lying unconscious on a gurney. Perhaps Rian Johnson couldn’t think of a good line to give General Leia as she casually walked in the door so he just skipped past the scene were it should have been in embarrassment.
Next we have a scene of many people—it’s never established who they are, sitting around while a curly haired woman—it’s never established who she is—explains that Leia is alive but that’s the only good news, much of the rest of the leadership has been killed. She then says that the chain of command is clear—which is exactly the thing to say when it’s not. This is a bizarre choice because its only purpose is to provide a moment for Poe Dameron’s ears perk up, thinking that he might be the next leader.
This micro-subplot makes no sense for the character. He’s supposed to be a hotshot, not an organizational climber. As a hotshot he’s all about results, not getting recognition. Only the most vain of corporate ladder-climbers would be thrilled to get field-promoted on a doomed ship with no weapons, no options, and nothing to do.
Be that as it may, Poe’s dreams of business cards with a better title on them are smashed when Vice Admiral Holdo is introduced. It isn’t explained where she came from. Presumably from either the medical frigate or the other ship that make up the three ships left? Why would they require a vice-admiral? Did they really have a rear admiral to keep in line? The Resistance seems awfully top-heavy.
And then we come to the very strange question of her appearance. She’s got faded manic-panic purple hair from Spencer’s Gifts and is wearing a saggy evening dress. She doesn’t look remotely like a Vice Admiral. Even Poe remarks on this—he’s heard of some amazing military feet she performed and asks out loud if this is really the same person.
So, apparently, we’re getting a don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover theme with Holdo. The problem is that none of the misleading cues have any sort of explanation. Why is a Vice Admiral of a guerrilla force operating behind enemy lines taking time to dye her hair purple? Why is she wearing a sagging evening dress instead of some sort of military uniform? These are very odd choices and moreover they’re counter to the typical don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover mis-cues. Those are almost always about what a person doesn’t spend his time doing. Such as, for example, keeping up his appearance. And the reason that works is that the cue suggests that he doesn’t have his life together enough to provide for himself the creature comforts most men work to have. Thus it becomes possible to reveal that he neglects these things because he is too focused on developing his skills to bother with them; essentially, that he is an ascetic.
It is possible to go in the opposite direction—to have a strategic genius who plays a fop as a form of disguise, so that people don’t suspect him of being a strategic genius. The classic example of this is The Scarlet Pimpernel. That doesn’t apply here, though, because Holdo was among her own people—and in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sir Percy dropped the foppish attitude whenever he was in England, among friends.
This seems to be yet another case of taking a trope and reversing it for the sake of novelty. The problem is that you can’t have someone who is so dedicated to her military endeavors that she spends time preening herself and wearing fancy clothes. Intense dedication can make time for doing the normal things, or it can result in neglecting them. But it can’t result in taking time for unnecessary things.
It is possible to play around with tropes to create new things, but they have to be things that actually work. You can’t simply invert a trope and get another good trope, just as you can’t invert a glass of water and have a marvelous new type of beverage holder. But that seems to be what Rian Johnson is all about.
Then again, who knows? Given that this is a low speed chase which people can leave and enter freely, perhaps she was actually at a dinner party when she heard that Leia was injured and the Resistance needed help and she didn’t have time to change before she jumped in from hyperspace? It’s not like we’re told where she came from and equally ridiculous things are about to happen.
Holdo gives a speech about how with 400 people on 3 ships that are obviously doomed the Resistance is never going to accomplish anything but that if at least some of them can survive it will be the spark that lights the fire of hope for the galaxy. There are two major problems with this scene. The first is that it makes their survival purely symbolic. They’re not, apparently, trying to survive in order to accomplish anything, or even just to survive because they want to live. They’re only trying to survive because it will inspire others to do something. But why would anyone care? There’s no reason given why they can’t easily be replaced by another 400 people somewhere else. Aside from Leia, not a single one of them has done anything anyone in the galaxy has heard of. Holdo could have said that they have to keep Leia alive because she is the symbol of hope in the galaxy, but she could have said a lot of things, none of which she actually said.
Second, this is directly contradicted by events later in the movie. Several hours later, it is clearly established that there is no hope left in the galaxy. Which means that their survival is completely and utterly pointless.
Then one of the more infamous scenes of the movie happens. Poe introduces himself to Holdo under his old title of Commander and she reminds him that Leia’s last official action was to demote him to captain. How she knew this, we’re not told. How she knew his new rank when it’s not obvious even Leia did, we’re not told. Poe brushes this away and asks what the plan is. Holdo flirtatiously tells him that she’s known a lot of pretty fly-boys and his job is to do what he’s told.
This scene is infamous because a lot of people have taken it to be the author incorporating a message of misandry—that men and masculinity are inferior and should go away. I don’t agree with this take at all. I believe that Holdo is supposed to be like the character of Viper on Top Gun (played by Tom Skerritt)—a wise older mentor figure who needs to both encourage the younger hotshot but also pull him up short so he can gain the wisdom necessary to be a truly great warrior. The problem is two-fold: this was written as a male part (I think because Rian Johnson can’t write a female part) and then just cast as a woman. But this doesn’t work because women and men don’t talk to each other other like men talk to men or women talk to women. For better or for worse, they simply don’t, and so a woman talking to a man like a man talks to a man feels off to us, like there’s some sub-text which wasn’t originally intended because the writer conceived of it as a man talking to a man. It’s a similar sort of problem to a character calling younger men “boy” and then casting a white man in that roll and a black man in the role of the younger man—it takes on meaning which wasn’t originally supposed to be there.
I think that’s what’s going on with Holdo. If you mentally replace her with a male character in a military uniform, the scene becomes way more normal, and then ties into the scene later where Holdo tells Leia that she likes Poe. It’s an almost standard trope if all of those characters were male, and Rian Johnson seems to think entirely in tropes. Then he subverts them without understanding them and they become meaningless and hard to recognize.
Also, Rian Johnson’s fists were apparently bitten by radioactive hams.
What makes this writing even stupider is that Poe is given a plan just a few scenes later.
And then it gets really stupid.
Finn, now dressed, is sneaking around the escape pods. What he intends to do there is anyone’s guess since it seems unlikely that escape pods come equipped with hyper-drives and they’re in the middle of nowhere. And since the Imperial death fleet is chasing them and shooting anything that gets within range the only plausible outcome of leaving in an escape pod is certain death. But whatever—everyone fails at everything in this movie. Since he must have read the script, it probably never occurred to Finn that he might succeed, so there was no point in having a contingency plan for success.
His ostensible reason for deserting the cause it’s unclear he ever joined is that Rey, having gone to the far-off planet of Achtung in order to find Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, was given a device that can track the wrist-mounted homing beacon which Leia had been wearing on her wrist until she was inexplicably put onto a gurney after her impromptu space walk, at which point it just slipped off for no reason and Finn picked it up.
I’d like to pause for a moment to consider the implications of a wrist-mounted device can transmit with enough power to enable someone to find it from anywhere in the galaxy but without being trackable by the bad guys. Actually, no. I don’t want to consider that. Never mind.
I can’t skip over Finn’s motivation, though. A person he’s grown attached to (perhaps even having fallen in love with?) has left on a heroic journey to get help and bring it back. This would be dangerous for her—that’s what makes it heroic, after all—so he’s trying to take her tracking device away from the people she’s trying to help so that she won’t be able to find them and help them. Let’s be clear about this: his goal is to sabotage his friend’s plan so that she will end up wandering space while her friends die. What would he do differently if he was her enemy?
Then as he’s getting ready to climb into the escape pod, he is spotted by Rose Tico. It’s never established what her job is. We saw an establishing shot of her crying earlier so perhaps she’s a professional mourner?
According to wikipedia she’s a “maintenance worker”, which I think is a euphemism for janitor but perhaps means mechanic? She’s not wearing a recognizable uniform and aside from what might be a collection of screwdriver bits worn like bullets on a gun-belt or what might be an actually collection of bullets, the only tool she appears to have is a space-taser. So perhaps she’s a member of the military police? Or a very misguided fashion police?
She’s utterly star-struck by Finn and his exploits on StarKiller base. This is another instance of something that kind-of works if this movie isn’t a sequel; otherwise his exploits on Star-Killer base happened less than a day ago. How would the janitor have had time to hear about his heroics while everyone is desperately packing up their base before the First Order arrives? Granted, she said that she heard it from her sister Paige. Apparently, the sisters had time to sit around gossiping while while everyone else was desperately packing up to flee for their lives. And what did Paige tell Rose that made her so impressed with Finn, anyway? What actually happened in the previous movie is that he tried to protect Rey but got his ass handed to him in a few seconds by Kylo Ren, and it only took that long because Ren was playing with him. And Paige wasn’t even there to see that.
Rose then explains to Finn that he is indeed a hero, which is a person who doesn’t run away. That’s not much of a definition of hero, but I guess under it Finn does technically qualify. Why she’s star-struck by someone who did so little is not explained. It’s not like Rose ran away, so she’s just as much a hero, by this definition. Anyway, this is in contrast to three cowards who tried to desert earlier that day, and who she had to stun with the space-taser she waves in Finn’s face to make her tasering of them more vivid. I believe that this is supposed to be funny. This is yet another trope which Rian Johnson doesn’t understand. This is funny when a mook or other comic relief idiot is shown to be so incredibly dumb he doesn’t understand what’s going on and the hero manages to sneak past him. It is not funny when one of the good guys is so dumb he doesn’t understand that the hero is trying to desert the good guys in order to undermine his supposed friend’s attempts to save the good guys. Which, come to think of it, would include Rose, so in addition to everything else, he’s trying to prevent Rose from being saved.
The fall of a hero—if Finn can in any way be considered a hero—is not a comedic moment.
Or perhaps Rian Johnson is such a loathsome wretch that he thinks that Finn’s attempt to prevent Rey from saving her friends was actually noble? Since it would more charitable to think him incompetent than evil, let’s assume that’s not it. Man is this guy bad at tropes.
Next, Rose catches a glimpse of Finn’s backback in the escape pod—what did he have in the backpack, anyway? He woke up naked in a strange place. It’s not like he’s got possessions to take with him—and she slowly works out that Finn is trying to desert the rebel army… he never officially joined or made any pledge to. But she works this through, out loud, talking through her thoughts. Oddly, she doesn’t finish her thoughts out loud; she gets out just enough to seem really dumb.
Finn then tries to explain why he’s doing what he’s doing but Rose coldly hits him with her space taser. I say space taser, but it’s probably actually some sort of electrical welding device. It’s pretty obvious by now that no one from the upper echelons of The Resistance put this dimwitted gossip in charge of guarding the escape pods.
The space taser knocks Finn back so hard that he flies 6 or 8 feet back and slams into the porthole of the escape pod. Online sources say that John Boyega weighs 87kg and if we conservatively estimate his as going 4 m/s, a kinetic energy calculator shows him as having been imparted 696 joules of kinetic energy. For reference, the Winchester JHP +P round, which is a common 9mm round fired by guns like the Glock 17, has 617J at the muzzle. The area which a space-taser imparts energy on can’t be much bigger than the area of a 9mm bullet hitting someone so he should have suffered severe, possibly fatal concussive damage to his internal organs. There’s also the minor detail of Finn’s head slamming into the wall of the capsule, then onto the floor of the capsule, likely giving him two concussions in a row.
Since this very serious moment is played as comedy, however, bugs bunny rules apply and Finn is just fine. One has to ask, though: why not go all-in and have an anvil drop on Finn’s head? Since our disbelief is, at this point, suspended only in the sense of having been hanged to death in a noose, there was nothing to lose and it might have actually been funny.
Some time later, Finn wakes up, partially paralyzed, on a cart on which Rose is wheeling him to… wherever she stored the other people she’s zapped. Perhaps she has fashioned a crude oubliette somewhere on the ship and just drops traitors in to die. Or perhaps she kills her victims next to a trash compactor so as to conveniently hide the bodies. Since she clearly wasn’t stationed to guard the escape pods and is only doing it for fun there’s no reason to suppose she’s going to take the “traitors” to an official brig.
Finn, realizing that he may only have moments left to live, tries to reason with Rose. Actually, “reason” might be too strong a word. He at least he talks at her. It comes out that the First Order can track them through hyperspace, at which point Rose assumes that this is active tracking and then claims that all active tracking works the same way. Then Finn and Rose deduce at each other, with a speed that the micro machines fast-talking guy wouldn’t sneer at, that the tracker will only be on the lead ship and that it will have its own circuit breaker. Rose wonders who would know where to find the circuit-breaker room on a star destroyer and Finn reveals that as a former janitor for the First Order, he does.
It should be noted that there is no reason whatever to assume that the tracking technology which the First Empire is using is active tracking as opposed to passive tracking. It should further be pointed out that Lord Snookum’s delta kite of doom wasn’t around the first time they jumped to hyperspace so the tracker clearly isn’t on that ship, wherever it might be. Actually, the idea that it’s on the Delta Kite of Doom is particularly funny because it could only be there by Hux having snuck one on when Snookums wasn’t looking—it having been clearly established that until the Resistance jumped to hyperspace Snookums was unaware of the tracking technology. That said, Finn and Rose have no way of knowing how incompetent the First Order—or the writers, take your pick—were. It should also be noted that no explanation is given for why active tracking would be located on the lead ship. Anyone with even a tiny bit of sense would prefer to put their critical sensors behind the front line so it’s less likely to get damaged. Why the Delta Kite of Doom has only one circuit breaker for its magical active tracking devices, or why it can only handle one active tracking device on the entire ship, is not mentioned.
To be fair, though, none of this actually matters because the plan to turn off the circuit breaker on the magic tracking technology never achieves anything. Technically, it’s not a plot hole if it never actually happens.
We then cut to Finn and Rose explaining to Poe the information which they just created ex nihilo. Finn is now perfectly fine, by the way, because the movie’s theme of “let the past go” applies to nothing so much as it does to the script itself. They probably saved a few dollars by not employing a continuity person and to be fair it’s not that jarring to the average audience member because absolutely nothing in this movie is memorable.
So the plan gets laid out for Poe—someone needs to sneak aboard Lord Snookum’s Delta Kite of Doom and flip the circuit breaker to the tracking device, which the First Order won’t notice for about six minutes, at which point they’ll presumably flip the circuit breaker back on. Apparently Rose and Finn also know that the First Order has no computerized monitoring systems capable of emitting a beep hooked up to their active tracking systems. This, by the way, is preferable to blowing up the ship with the tracker not because—all their weapons having been destroyed—they have no way of blowing up the Delta Kite of Doom but because the First Order would notice the ship exploding and activate the tracker on another ship.
Also, for no reason and not worthy of comment, they have a complete schematic of the Delta Kite of Doom. Perhaps Finn has an eidetic memory and constructed the plans from his years of janitorial service aboard it. If so, it’s a nice touch that he also took the time to animate the fleet jumping to light speed, timed to sync up with when he said it in his presentation. No one comments on this, either to praise Finn for his animations kills or to ask why he thought putting together this presentation was a good use of time. Like most things in this movie, it has no connection either to what came before or what happened after. This movie is just a collection of scenes which the director thought cool on their own. That it’s a movie is just a sort of volume discount where the scenes are cheaper if you buy 250 of them at once.
At this point we get the only good line of the movie. Poe stops in the middle of considering the absolutely insane plan to ask how Finn and Rose met. Finn isn’t sure how to respond and Rose elides to, “Just luck.” Poe asks whether it was good luck or bad luck, and Rose answers, “Not sure yet.”
Granted, the character of Rose never exhibits this amount of self- or situational- awareness again, it was still a good line with good delivery. Also, it turned out to be bad luck. Still, it is, strictly speaking, better than nothing. Unlike the rest of the movie.
Also, this scene is apparently taking place in the medical closet into which Finn had been put, as we pan over to the comatose body of Leia. This, perhaps, explains why C-3PO is in the scene—his presence is really quite inexplicable otherwise. Threepio points out that Vice Admiral Holdo will never approve of this plan. Poe agrees, though he ignores the fact that this is because the plan to sneak aboard a First Order warship which is actively shooting at them in order to throw a circuit breaker which a former janitor thinks he remembers seeing while he was mopping is, in fact, completely insane. And that’s not even the worst part of this plan. If this crazy stunt had any possibility of succeeding, there’s a few dozen things they should be doing in preference to throwing a circuit breaker then running away.
This is something of a theme in The Last Jedi—the big problem is not so much that the impossible happens but that if the impossible is possible within this movie, it should have been completely different movie. In short, the movie never, ever takes itself seriously. “Forget the past” may appeal to lazy narcissists, but it makes for a terrible screenplay. If the movie is really just going to be a collection of awesome but unconnected scenes, it could be way more awesome than this.
Check out Kung Fury if you want to see this sort of thing done well:
(Actually, I say that but Kung Fury still has a more coherent plot with more consistent characters than The Last Jedi.)
Be that as it may, Poe says that the plan is on a need-to-know basis and Holdo doesn’t need to know. He leaves implicit that this is because she would say no since she still thinks she’s in a movie where there’s a point to trying to succeed.
Then the plan somehow manages to get stupider. The first step in figuring out how to sneak aboard the Delta Kite of Doom is to video-call Maz Kanada, who is a yoda-like muppet whose bar was destroyed by the First Order in the previous movie. When we see her, she’s shooting a blaster in what she says is a “union dispute”. Since she is the owner of the bar, this means that she’s shooting her former employees. Fortunately she can multitask while she’s firing them, with a blaster.
What they need to get aboard the Delta Kite of Doom while it’s busy shooting at the Resistance is a “master codebreaker” because the Empire’s military ships are designed with all the security of a website circa 1994. It’s implied that Maz Kanada could do it but is unavailable because she can’t let a single former employee live. Since she’s busy—she must have a lot of former employees—she directs them to the only other master codebreaker in the galaxy who she trusts.
He can be found at a Casino on the one-casino-and-nothing-else planet, playing at the only high stakes table, and wearing a “plom blossom” on his lapel. Maz doesn’t seem to think his name is relevant, but fortunately she has a schematic of a plom blossom on speed dial so she’s able to show them the flower she means.
Not that it’s going to matter—because they don’t actually find the master codebreaker—but this is really strange. No time or date is specified. Apparently the man is just trapped in some sort of gambling hell where he stands forever at the high stakes table, never winning or losing, just playing forever until someone comes to hire his code breaking services. Of course it is possible to supply the world-building where this makes sense because you can find the guy at that table every Thursday night on the casino planet—but that’s the job of the writer. If as an audience member we’re supposed to use our imaginations to fix the movie we’re watching, we could watch Plan 9 From Outer Space—which is considerably shorter and better plotted than this movie—and just imagine good special effects.
Anyway, the gambling planet is called Canto Bight and now we come to the part of the low speed chase where Finn and Rose get into some sort of lightspeed-capable shuttle craft and fly off to the one casino on it. At least, I assume it’s the one casino on Canto Bight, since they are given no other information to find it than the name of the planet it’s on. While they go, the chase continues as if nothing happened. The First Order doesn’t dispatch a ship to follow them. The First Order doesn’t do anything at all. They just don’t care. Like the writer.
This is somewhat reminiscent of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode in which Crow and Tom Servo found some hyper war escape pods in a hanger bay and used them to dogfight and crash into the satellite of love, destroying the escape pods, just for fun. After they explain this to Mike, he asks them why the didn’t use the hyper warp escape pods to escape, and, upon consideration, they admit that would have been a better use of the escape pods. “Boy, is my face red” is, if memory serves, what Crow says. The way that Finn and Rose just fly off to Canto Bight on a hyperspace capable ship is much like that, except that no one asks if they should have used their hyperspace escape ship to escape. 400 people on the ship and it never occurred to a single one of them. If their enemies weren’t equally as incompetent, they’d have been dead a long time ago.
Next we get a very pretty establishing shot of Canto Bight and at the end of it we see an alien complaining to some traffic cops that he “told them this was a public beach and they couldn’t park there”. Yes, this is referring to our brave heroes on a secret mission to find the one man in the galaxy who can help them to save their friends. When someone points out that they’re parking where they are not allowed to park they don’t say, “Thanks!” and move their vehicle. They don’t say, “sorry!” and move their vehicle. They don’t even just move their vehicle. Instead they decide… that laws only apply to other people? This crucial plot point and character development happens off-screen so we don’t know for sure. All we know is that they are both stupid and think that laws apply to other people, not them. I’m really starting to wonder if they’re even supposed to be the good guys.
Finn and Rose enter the casino, and Finn marvels at the wealth and opulence before him. Rose hates it, though, because, according to her, the only people rich enough to afford this sort of thing are arms dealers. There are two major problems here, the first being that this is completely insane, and that for two reasons. The first reason that this is insane is that there are all sorts of ways of getting rich besides selling weapons, such as founding and owning a company that makes really good lawn mowers. I bet the guy who owns the company who makes all of the speeders in the galaxy is pretty well off. The second reason that this is insane is that the amount of money required to gamble in a place like Canto Bight just isn’t that high. Granted, this was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but last time I checked, here on earth, you can rent a tuxedo for less than $200 and buy a perfectly serviceable one for less than $500, and a trip to much larger and glitzier casinos in Las Vegas can be done for a few thousand dollars. There just isn’t the sort of wealth on display that marks these people out as more than middle class with a certain sort of taste in entertainment.
The other major problem with every single patron of this casino being an arms dealer is that it means that the code breaker that they’re there to bring back with them is also an arms dealer. If Rose just wants to kill all arms dealers, why did she volunteer for a mission to go get one and beg for his help? This, of course, never occurs to Rose.
She then hears an enormous rumbling and switches from moral scolding to schoolgirl excitement, and runs out to see that the thumping is the racing of space-dog-horse-cats, which are apparently called “fathiers.” This name both sounds too much like “father” and also sounds like someone who operates a gambling table, so it’s perfect for this movie. She’s never seen a space-dog-horse-cat before, and it’s just amazing. Then, to get back to the earlier mood and because declaring everyone on Canto Bight to be an evil arms dealer was too subtle, Rose then directs Finn to look through a pair of binoculars on a pole.
Through them, he sees, in the center of the race track, there is an area where a space-dog-horse-cat is being beaten for no reason. There isn’t even an intelligible reason for why it’s there at all—it’s not saddled and it’s clearly established that the stables are elsewhere. An orphan who mistook which stage his production of Oliver Twist was to be shot on tries to stop the big fat four-armed alien who is administering the beating, and is partially successful, with the alien turning to beat the orphan, instead. Finn then looks at the space-dog-horse-cats that are racing, and it turns out that all of the jockeys are continuously beating the long, graceful necks of their space-dog-horse-cats. This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with making them go faster, so far as we can tell. Presumably it’s just that the favorite pass-time on Canto Bight is beatings; the rich arms dealers apparently love little else but to watch things getting beaten. But even beatings get boring, so it livens the beatings up to have the things getting beaten run in a circle. Perhaps next they’ll teach the orphans to juggle while they’re being beaten.
Rose also says something about her origin story, that she and her sister came from a mining planet. The First Order had used the ore mined from their planet to build weapons which they tested out on the now-used-up mining planet. This is something out of a children’s cartoon, where the insane villain needs to prove to the children watching that he’s evil, so he has his own people killed pointlessly, just because he enjoys watching destruction. That doesn’t really make sense for a galactic-level empire in a show meant for people over the age of ten, since a mere mining planet would be run by a low-level official who is responsible up the chain of command for his use of resources. Aside from it being really hard to completely mine out an entire planet, there will be other mining planets, and moving the people, if not the equipment, to the next mining planet would be a vastly better use of resources. Amateurs think of tactics, professionals think of logistics, and in modern industrial wars you win wars by having more weapons. Wasting industrial resources is the way to lose. The Emperor, or Supreme Leader Snookums, or even Kylo Ren (by the way, why doesn’t he get a “darth” in front of his name?) might be able to get away with this sort of wastefulness, since they don’t really answer to anyone, but not a low-level officer. I’m pretty sure that Rian Johnson just really liked a scene from some cartoon he watched as a kid, didn’t bother to look it up to refresh his memory, and put it in here.
Recall that while they’re taking time to criticize the moral failings of the people on Canto Bight, their friends are being chased—admittedly, at low speed—by the First Order’s death fleet. I suppose this establishes that they had plenty of time to legally park, earlier. Anyway, they leisurely walk back in to get to the life-or-death mission that they’re on, when the alien who had been complaining to the parking police, earlier, identifies them to the same police. Finn and Rose don’t notice, since they are finally laser-focused on their mission, so they don’t see the police walk up behind them and taser them down. Why they are not beaten isn’t explained; perhaps there’s some law on Canto Bight against beating people who aren’t being paid for it.
That’s right; not only do our brave heroes fail in their life-or-death mission to save the resistance, they fail because they couldn’t be bothered to park legally. And, secondarily, because they couldn’t stick to their mission and instead had to gawk and scold and virtue signal.
Finn and Rose wake up in remarkably large prison cell with few beds. Its design is odd; there are beds around the edges and such a large interior space you might be able to fit a regulation tennis court in it. Being a janitor and an ex-janitor on a secret spy mission, they conclude that their best course of action is to loudly discuss their plans, so that if there’s anyone on the other side of the cavernous room, he’ll hear. This wakes up a dirty man who was in the same prison cell, but on the other side of the cavernous space, whose name turns out to be DJ, because that sounds like a Star Wars type name to someone who was very, very drunk, which Presumably Rian Johnson was when he wrote this.
DJ, who couldn’t help but overhear there plans, notes that they need a master codebreaker, which he happens to be. They scoff, because he looks like a drunk bum, but he warns them not to judge by appearances. Why Rian Johnson decided to steal from the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast, is anyone’s guess. It is so ludicrously out of place here, words are insufficient to describe it. Contrary to this weird sort of hand-waving, in fact, there does need to be an explanation for why a master codebreaker who can just waltz through the shields of Imperial star destroyers is filthy and taking a nap in the jail of this casino where he clearly wasn’t in the casino as a customer.
You might be tempted to think that he was actually there to meet them, but no, that’s not it. You might be tempted to come up with something, anything, to give some sort of explanation to this impossible coincidence. But no, there is no explanation. Rian Johnson just thought it would be cool to drag the movie on for no earthly reason, substituting one featureless character for another. Seriously, had they met up with the master code breaker with whom they were supposed to meet up, nothing in the rest of the movie would have had to have been changed, except for shooting the scenes with a different actor. This makes as much sense as the chosen one getting to the temple with the sword stuck in the stone where only the chosen one may draw it out, and then realizing after he can’t get it out that he’s pulling on the wrong thing-in-the-stone. This one is actually a mop that can only be pulled out by a janitor, noble of heart and strong of back. A few feet over is the sword in the stone that can only be pulled out by the chosen one. Come to think of it, maybe this was an homage to the scene in Space Balls where Dark Helmet accidentally tried to read the radar from the Mr. Coffee coffee machine, and then after getting some coffee walked several steps over to look at Mr Radar? It would explain a lot if Rian Johnson, when he was doing his research for this movie, accidentally watched Space Balls instead of Star Wars.
Our brave heroes scoff at the idea that the filthy bum who’s not even wearing his shoes (they’re slung over his shoulders) is a master code breaker, apparently under the impression that the movie that they’re in makes a modicum of sense. Why, since they’re in jail for a parking violation, is anyone’s guess, but perhaps they’re just not very bright.
DJ then accepts their rejection and calmly walks over to the jail cell’s door, pulls out a magic card from his pocket because incompetence is the main theme of this movie and having searched the prisoner before locking him up would have been competence. To be fair, we don’t know that DJ was actually put into the prison cell by the police; perhaps he just thought it felt like home. I doubt even Rian Johnson knows. That’s OK, though, because everyone will forget that it happened as soon as its over.
DJ’s magic lockpick is so magic that not only does his jail cell open, but so do all of the other jail cells on the cell block. Who knows why. Who cares why? No one actually comes out of the other cells, so we’re going to forget that it happened in a second. In a coherent movie this would be to impress Finn and Rose so that they accept DJ, but DJ just walks off, making that irrelevant.
Because no one is allowed to be competent, though, not even the filthy magic bum, the unlocking of the jail cells attracts the attention of a squad of guards. They’re about to (re?)capture DJ, when BB-8 rolls up and knocks all of the guards out by shooting gold coins at them. This is a humorous callback to an early scene in which a very drunk alien in a tuxedo thinks that BB-8 is a slot machine and keeps putting gold coins into his slot. Apparently, whoever designed BB-8 had built a coin thrower into the rotund little robot for just such a situation. It is sufficiently powerful to knock out adults wearing helmets, which is an act of mercy to them since they no longer know what’s going on this idiotic movie.
Finn and Rose may be idiots, but they at least have eyes so they notice that DJ just unlocked the jail cell. Oddly, they don’t go with him, but somehow end up getting chased by guards and going their own way. There didn’t really look like multiple ways available to go from the jail cell, but who cares? It’s only an important plot point that will then be immediately forgotten about. One way or another, Finn and Rose end up in the space-dog-horse-cat stables, where one of them sticks its creepy face out of its stall and looks at Rose. Entranced by the majestic something of this weird CGI beast, she presses the button to open its stall and inside is the orphan who was beaten in an earlier scene. He reaches up to press the close-the-stall button which someone put in the back of the stall because they never once gave a thought to how large animal stalls work. Rose tells him to wait, then shows him her ring. At first it seems like just a piece of jewelry, but then she moves a slider on the side of it and the plain face disappears into nowhere, revealing an insignia that looks like a Klingon bird of prey underneath. Apparently this is the insignia of the rebel alliance, which hasn’t really been a thing for decades so it’s really non-obvious why an uneducated stable orphan slave who’s at most about 10 years old would recognize it.
Frankly, there’s kind of a bigger problem if he does recognize it. This is just a piece of jewelry. There’s nothing magic about it, nor is it unique. If everyone, everywhere, recognizes the rebel insignia as meaning something—what, we’re not even told, since the Rebellion is now the New Republic—you’d have to expect con men everywhere to make lots of fake rebel insignia. There is exactly zero reason the stable orphan has to trust this ring, and if someone as far away from galactic politics as he is recognizes it, he should have a lot of reasons to not trust it.
Also, and this is a comparatively small point, why did a mechanic on a resistance ship have a secret insignia ring? If she was captured on a Resistance ship, it’s not like she’d have any hope of claiming she was just sight-seeing. Was the Resistance in the habit of sending its mechanics on secret spy missions, that it gave them secret spy equipment?
Be that as it may, the dirty little ragamuffin recognizes the symbol and decides to trust it. I think that he’s the one who presses the “open all of the stalls” button, but I forget and can’t find the scene on YouTube to double check. Someone does, and the space-dog-horse-cats charge out of their stalls and stampede through Canto Bight. They tear through the Casino, destroying all of the tables and possibly killing waiters, croupiers, patrons, and others. This is presumably fine since everyone there is an arms dealer—who knows, maybe even the waiters are arms dealers—at least according to the Resistance mechanic with a penchant for violence and no experience of the galaxy, so they clearly deserve to die. They tear through the streets, destroying the speeders of God-alone-knows-who, causing yet more property damage.
Throughout all of this, Finn and Rose manage to ride a space-dog-horse-cat safely. The things jump in odd, CGI-ish ways, but our intrepid duo manages to hold on despite neither of them ever having ridden so much as a pony. Oddly, the animals run at top speed despite no one beating them on the their necks. Perhaps the beatings really are just because the spectators at Canto Bight just love to watch things get beaten. If so, this really makes one wonder why Maz Kanada thought that the only master code breaker in the galaxy that was trustworthy could be found here. I suppose Rian Johnson had already forgotten that part of the script by the time he was writing this part, though.
They manage to steer the space-dog-horse-cat to their illegally parked space ship. How they knew to get there from where at top speed aboard a ridiculous CGI race animal doing parkour through unfamiliar streets is anyone’s guess. I suppose the force was with them. Or at least Rian Johnson was. Up to a point. For some reason the police did not have our heroes’ space ship towed to the police lot. I suppose they were so incensed by someone having parked illegally that they just rushed to apprehend the villains. They didn’t even put a parking boot on the thing, that we could see. They just left it there.
But that’s OK, because, as I said, Rian Johnson was with the dimwitted duo only up to a point. As they’re about to board their ship, the police show up in space cruisers and blow it up. This escalation of force makes a certain amount of sense, given that the police would taser people down without warning over a parking violation, and our heroes may have just been responsible for the deaths of several people and millions of dollars in property damage.
At this point, dear reader, I must confess that I’ve grown weary of The Last Jedi. So as not to end completely abruptly, I will summarize the rest of this awful movie, and its main problems.
So more chasing ensues until the master code breaker shows up in a stolen spacecraft to chase the police off and rescue Finn and Rose. Perhaps he knew where they were because he was a master code breaker and was thus able to tap into the police… something. Or maybe he read the script. Either way, he shows up at the end of the chase and the hapless duo are saved, though not before taking the saddle off of the giant space-dog-horse-cat that they rode, and slapping its rump to drive it off into the wilderness, where for all they know there is no edible food on the planet for it because there’s no reason to believe it’s native to that area, and it will slowly starve to death. Better, I suppose, than a life of constant beatings. Unless it’s paid well for them.
So for no reason the master code breaker decides to help Finn and Rose with their asinine plan to get aboard the ship Finn has never been on yet can conjure the plans to with a single button press to find the room Finn has never been in but can find anyway in order to throw the circuit breaker for the tracking device which will allow the last few rebelsistance ships to jump to lightspeed without being tracked.
The odd thing is that the plan might have worked if the master code breaker didn’t turn out to be a traitor and sell the information about the plan to the empire.
Oh, it turns out that the stolen ship belonged to one of the arms dealers on Canto Bight, but in a meaningless reveal, it turned out that he sold weapons both to the EmpireFirst Order and to the Resistance. Why the Second or (third or Fourth) Order needed arms dealers to sell them tie fighters when they were clearly manufacturing their own capital ships is never explained, because it’s too stupid to admit of an explanation. Also, one wonders where Rose thought that the Rebelsistance got its weapons from, if not from arms dealers. To be fair to her, though, her home planet was apparently used as a test for weapons by the Empire or some arms dealers or someone, because an unarmed mining planet makes a much better testing ground for weapons than does, say, an asteroid or a purpose-built test that actually proves whether the weapons work against their intended targets. Though who knows—in this movie, it wouldn’t shock me if the weapons the miners built for the Empire were anti-used-up-mine weapons. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility in The Last Jedi.
Some time around now the ugly jedi girl (played by a pretty actress, it perhaps should be noted) is spending time with a grumpy old man who answers to the name of Luke Skywalker. It turns out that he’s a feckless loser who abandoned his friends and the universe because he’s a bad man. She wants to be trained as a Jedi, and he agrees to train her to not be a Jedi, which she accepts for some reason. He promises her three lessons, which don’t happen. The first lesson is that the Jedi are bad, which you know because other people do bad things when the Jedi are around. So, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the Jedi are responsible. You’ll see this same asinine idea around super heroes—that super villains would be model citizens were there no superheroes to stop them. Only people who are intentionally stupid say this, so of course it goes into this movie.
At some point ugly girl—I think her name may be Rey—has a vision of the most evil place in the universe, so she goes there to find answers about who she is. She doesn’t find any answers, and it turns out that the heart of darkness is just a warm, comfortable, non-threatening place in which she sees a hall-of-mirrors effect, then sees one more mirror and then it’s over with her learning nothing and never having been threatened.
She relates this odd, meaningless experience to an astral projection of Kylo Ren. They do something that might be flirting with each other if he wasn’t a eunuch and she wasn’t spayed and lobotomized. There’s one kind of cool part where Kylo encourages Rey to acknowledge that he’s a monster, which she won’t, for some reason. She sees good in him, or something. It’s completely unearned, but who cares.
Kylo tells Rey the story of how Luke tried to kill him, which makes Rey go and demand to know from Luke whether the story Kylo told her is true, which Luke confirms. She acts like Luke lied to hear earlier, except he told her that he turned Kylo Ren evil, and she told him that he didn’t, despite her knowing nothing about what happened. Anyway, she fights Luke and in the middle of a fist & force fight pulls out a light saber and threatens to kill him for no obvious reason.
Oh, right, I forgot to mention that when Rey got to the island planet it turned out that Luke had cut himself off from the force, but that’s fine, because he later reconnected himself to the force before his fist/force fight with Rey.
So Rey goes off to save Kylo Ren. How she knows where he is is anyone’s guess, but that’s fine because she finds him. This renders a sub-plot with a subspace beacon that Rey would use to find the resistance completely moot, but who cares? Certainly not the author.
Rey flies to the delta kite of doom where she is taken prisoner and brought before Dark Lord Snookums. He beats her up with the force a bit, then commands Kylo Ren to kill her. In one of the stupidest climaxes I’ve ever seen, Kylo Ren uses the force to point Rey’s light saber—which Snookums had placed on his arm rest—at Dark Lord Snookums. The Dark Lord had closed his eyes to properly savor the sight of watching the girl killed by her would-be lover, and babbles on about how he’s reading Kylo Ren’s thoughts to cover the sound of the light saber at his side scraping against his metal arm rest. As he’s reaching the climax of delight at how he can sense Kylo Ren preparing to strike down his true enemy, we hear a light saber ignite and Dark Lord Snookums suddenly opens his eyes in surprise—he’s got a light saber going through the middle of him.
Kylo Ren then uses the force to pull the light saber towards him, sideways, and despite only having his torso severed from the middle to the front, Dark Lord Snookums is cut completely in half, and the top half topples down to the ground. The gold lamé bath robe which Dark Lord Snookums had been wearing apparently couldn’t save him. And so VoldemortDark Lord Snookums is dead. Because apparently his species kept its brain in his lower torso. Or something.
Then the longest fight of the movie ensues, lasting almost four minutes, as the praetorian guard attacks Kylo Ren and Rey, who team up for some reason. It’s a fight choreography which would do any no-budget high school production proud—making it somewhat odd in a $250,000,000+ movie. In one great scene, a red armored space knight who had been holding two flaming space daggers grabs Rey and the space dagger in his free hand is photoshopped out because there has to be some explanation for why he doesn’t just stab her with it. Anyway, Space Wizards fight a bunch of warriors armed, armored, and trained, to fight Space Wizards, and the Space Wizards helpfully don’t use any space magic, while the people who trained to fight the Space Wizards helpfully only put on their lightsaber-proof arm guards but used the costume chest plates. (If it turns out that the choreography was bought directly from a low-budget Hong Kong Kung-Fu movie from the 1970s and shot with no adaptations whatever, it would not be surprising, except that even low budget kung fu movies from the 1970s tended to have better fight choreographies. But maybe from a Hong Kong high school indie film?)
Somewhere around here vice admiral Holdo finally reveals her plan. They’re going to get into small unarmed shuttles and fly to a planet which happens to be on their way and moreover happens to have an old Rebel base on it. This will work because the Empire is only scanning for large ships, not for small ships. And apparently no one on the imperial ships looks out their windows, despite lots of people standing by the windows facing outwards. Don’t worry, though, the idiocy of the empire won’t result in the idiocy of the resistance working—the master code breaker overheard the plan when it was being told to Finn and Rose, and then told it to the Empire.
Oh, yeah, Finn and Rose. They’re captured, of course. In perhaps the strangest plot twist of the film, the Master Code Breaker is actually paid by the empire and allowed to go on his way. I guess the writer forgot that they were evil?
Anyway, as they execute the plan, General Evening Gown (I can’t remember her name) stays behind because they don’t have the technology to leave a brick on the accelerator pedal. But it’s as well that she does, because the Delta Kite of Doom immediately starts shooting the unarmored transports as they’re going down to the planet.
I do have to ask, at this point, why it was that no one on the Delta Kite of Doom looked at a star chart and noted that literally the only thing near to the straight line in which the resistance ships were traveling was this planet, and that therefore someone might think to go there? Not that it matters since the betrayal of the Master Code Breaker took the place of someone in the First Order having two brain cells to rub together.
So General Evening Gown turns the her now empty-but-for-her ship around and rams it into the Delta Kite of Doom. But not in any sensible way, like at full impulse power. No. She jumps to light speed. The special effects which accompany this are pretty, but the concept is insane. If it actually worked, everyone would use drone ships with light speed drives as a form of torpedo, and capital ships simply wouldn’t exist. It’s gratuitously dumb because ramming the other ship at full impulse would probably have achieved a similar effect, and it’s not like she actually saved the transport ships. Literally only one of them makes it down to the salt planet.
She does, oddly, save Finn and Rose, however. She hits right as they were about to be executed. They take advantage of the confusion to have a fight with a chrome-covered storm trooper who Finn eventually beats by sucker punching, and then they escape down to the salt planet.
The all-white planet is salt, by the way, not snow. They’re very clear about this. Why the imperial troops who land are wearing their snow outfits is unclear, given how clear they are that it’s salt, not snow, but whatever.
The Rebel Base turns out to be a cave with a giant steel door on the front and no way out. (I love Mr. John C. Wright’s observation that having no emergency exit makes the Rebellion less wise than rabbits.) The Resistance calls for help but no one answers. Then the empire lands with what I’m going to call AT-GTs, because they’re quadrupedal like AT-ATs, except that they look like gorillas (their front legs seem to be walking on their knuckles). These land far away from the base with no weapons because the First Order is incompetent. Also, they’re dragging a large cannon which Finn recognizes because apparently all storm troopers are required to memorize the schematics of all First Order ships and weapons. Anyway, it’s “miniaturized death star technology”.
This may be the stupidest part of the movie yet, but by now one is so numb it’s impossible to feel it properly. This makes as much sense as a dwarf war elephant. The only reason that the Death Star was a threat was because it was a normal weapon scaled up to unimaginably immense proportions. The Death Star didn’t have a magic weapon, it just had an energy delivery system so large that it was the size of a moon. Shrinking that down to something small is like a miniature giant—aka a normal sized person.
That said, a cannon which can melt a large steel door requires no great stretch of the imagination, given their other weapons, so it doesn’t much matter.
The resistance mounts a desperate last stand where they use 30 year old war speeders that have an impressively stupid design. In order to get a red/white contrast, the salt is a thin layer atop blood-red rock, and the speeders are outfitted with a single ski at the bottom which has to contact the ground for the thing to remain stable as it flies above the ground. Thus they leave blood-red tracks against the immaculate white. It’s pretty, but really, really stupid.
They attack the approaching AT-GTs and cannon, but then turn back when they are obviously out-matched. Then Finn is going to go on a suicide run to ram the canon directly, disabling it. Except Rose goes on a semi-suicide run to knock Finn out of his suicide run. As he, bloodied but able to walk, holds her broken body, she tells him that they will win, not by destroying what they hate, but by saving what they love. As she says this, the cannon destroys the giant door to the rebel base. Then Rose steels a kiss from Finn. (It happens off-screen, but apparently he then carries her almost-lifeless body across the mile-or-two of battlefield back to the rebel base.)
It was stupid, pointless, and dumb, and in that sense a perfect encapsulation of this movie.
The AT-GTs eventually come to the front door, where they kind of wait. Then out of nowhere—literally—Luke Skywalker shows up. He just sort of walks out of a dark corner of the base, and people are mildly surprised to see him. Except Leia, who registers no emotion whatever. It turns out that he’s an astral projection, but he doesn’t mention this. He does, however, tell Leia that he can’t save Kylo Ren (who is her son), and she says that her son died a long time ago, implying that it’s fine to kill him now.
Luke then walks out of the base, and Kylo Ren flies down on a shuttlecraft to fight him. Oh, wait. First Kylo Ren ordered the AT-GTs to fire everything that they had at Luke. Then as they’re firing all their weapons, he hysterically screams to fire more. He keeps screaming this for a while until his comic relief second-in-command (the one where in the beginning of the movie Dark Lord Snookums slammed him to the floor and dragged him along a catwalk, in order to berate him ten feet from where he was originally standing) screamed at the men to stop firing. Apparently he was appalled at the waste of good ammunition, or something. But Luke is unhurt and only brushes some dust off of his shoulder. Then Kylo Ren flies down from the AT-GT in a shuttlecraft to face his former master alone.
There is then a thoroughly uninteresting battle where Luke dodges a bit because they want to delay the revelation that he’s a ghost. Oh, and Kylo says something and Luke replies that every part of Kylo’s sentence was wrong, except that it was pretty much all correct. But it was a callback to when he said that before during a scene when he wasn’t teaching Rey (and parts of her sentence were correct, too). So, um, yeah. It’s like good writing, in that it involves words put in order.
At this point the Han Solo replacement (I can’t remember his name either) deduces from Luke showing up that there must be another entrance to the base. It turns out that there is, but this is pure coincidence because Luke isn’t really there. Why Luke didn’t tell them this is anyone’s guess. It would have been useful information. Especially because they spent a lot of valuable time watching the “fight” between Luke and Kylo Ren.
But fortunately there are some crystal foxes in the base which lead the resistance fighters to the exit right as Kylo Ren is discovering that Luke is just a ghost. Then Luke disappears and dies for no obvious reason. He was sweating, though, so perhaps he died of exhaustion? The astral projection power was completely new to this movie, so it can have any side-effects the director wants.
Unfortunately the emergency exit / random tunnel the builders of the for didn’t know about is blocked by a pile of rocks. But fortunately for the people we’ve spent the most time watching in this dumpster fire of a movie (perhaps they’re protagonists?), Rey shows up and uses the force to move the rocks. Differently than anyone else had ever used the force to move rocks, of course, because it’s doubtful that anyone involved with the making of this movie had so much as watched another star wars movie.
Then the remainder of the resistance flies off in the Millenium Falcon. It’s perhaps thirty people. I’d say that the resistance is clearly no longer relevant to the galaxy, but it’s far from clear that they were ever relevant. Granted, they did destroy the First Order’s unstoppable super weapon, but only because the First Order brought it right to the Resistance’s remote base. Had they kept using their unstoppable super weapon to fight the Second Republic, they’d have handily won and the Resistance would still just be a few hundred people in the middle of nowhere looking for a semi-mythical Jedi (who it turns out didn’t want to be found despite having left a map to help find him) rather than doing anything useful.
It utterly baffles me that this movie was made. Supposedly Rian Johnson was chosen to write and direct the film because he had the producer Kathleen Kennedy feel safe. Which, given what Hollywood was like, presumably means she believed he wouldn’t rape her. And, granted, not raping her is definitely a good quality in a writer/director. It is not, it turns out, the sole criteria necessary to make a good movie.
I really wish that we could crowd fund a $150 million shot-for-shot remake of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and use it as the yardstick to measure all future sci-fi movies. Because it’s much better written than this wretched movie, but the better special effects, acting, lighting, costuming, makeup, sound, and photography disguise that fact from some people.
In a video in which a former MMA fighter accepts a challenge from a self-defense coach to fight, the comment section was, as you might imagine, lapping up the drama like a man who just walked through the desert a lemonade stand. One comment stood out to me, though:
I’m an atheist, but please God, make this happen.
In his excellent video on prayer, Bishop Barron said that studies show that everyone prays—even atheists. And indeed, they do. But it’s curious to consider when they pray, since they’re not exactly known for regularly saying their bedtime prayers. (What follows is, of course, guesswork and painting with a broad brush.)
The second biggest time, I suspect, is in cases of danger. And of course there is the prayers asking to be spared from danger. But more interesting is a reason given by the blogger Richard Fernandez, who went by the pen name Wretchard the Cat at the time. He was explaining why there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s not because people are scared. It’s because they need forgiveness.
And indeed, forgiveness is one of the two great problems that atheists face which they cannot possibly solve. As a creature in time, they cannot change the past; this means that things done wrong cannot be put right. God, being outside of time, can apply a balancing payment at the very instant of a misdeed; people can only try to make amends and try to forget. But amends do not fix the original problem, since it remains what it ever was. Only God can change the problem in the moment of its existence, since only he was there and not causing the problem.
The other great unsolvable problem which atheists have relates to what is probably the more common type of atheist prayer: hope. An atheist has precisely no reason to hope. The only way to live life, other than in despair, is in hope. We are too finite—too weak and short-sighted—to live in any way other than despair and hope. But to live in despair will probably just end in suicide; though to quote Chesterton it might be suicide using the tools of pleasure, rather than the tools of pain.
The type of prayer that hope produces is generally that of asking for life to work out according to an intelligible rational plan, or as it is more commonly known, asking for stuff.
Which brings us back to the quote with which this started. Everyone knows, on some level, that for the world to be good it must be ordered according to a rational will. It’s curious how much of the time, in a rich society, one can not think about that fact.
Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:
The dodge is too easy, and the supposition too improbable. I would add as a rider, that no criminal should be credited with exceptional powers of disguise unless we have had fair warning that he or she was accustomed to making up for the stage. How admirably is this indicated, for example, in Trent’s Last Case!
A few of these commandments have, over the years, become less applicable simply because people have developed the good sense to not violate them. I think that this commandment may be the one for which that is most the case. I can’t think of a story I’ve read—good or bad—in which twins and other doubles appear.
Well, that’s not quite true. There’s an episode of Scooby Doo where a woman was being framed as a witch by her (unknown) twin sister. And there was a Poirot where a murderer established her alibi by having a famous impersonator pretend to be her at a dinner party—but that certainly follows the commandment since the main thing we know about the impersonator is that she was extraordinarily skilled at pretending to be other people. But those are the only two examples which come to mind.
I should note that I’m thinking about really skillful disguises, where a person can interact with others, in person, for quite some time, and be taken to be someone else who wasn’t really there. Minor disguise, by contrast, is a fairly common device in mysteries. It’s a time-honored tradition to have the murderer pretend to be the victim so as to fake the time of death to a later time for which the murderer has an alibi. So much so that these days if a person overhears a conversation the victim was having through a closed door, or saw the victim doing something but at a great distance and with his face obscured but you could tell it was him because of the bright red scarf he always wore, one’s first thought is that it was the murderer pretending to be the victim. In such a case, woe to anyone who has an alibi for the time the murder is supposed to have happened.
With regard to twins, Fr. Knox’s commentary is interesting: “The dodge is too easy, and the supposition too improbable.” These are two different objections, and not particularly related to each other, though I think the conjunction is important here.
The first objection—that the dodge is too easy—is interesting because it is in a sense the essence of a twist that it is something which explains a lot once you know it. But this is not an intellectual twist; it is, rather, a natural twist. It is an oddity of nature that there should be such things as identical twins. And it is the essence of a mystery that the thing unraveled should have been twisted by the hand of man, not of God. It is legitimate to try to understand the mysteries of God, but it is a very different book in which that is done.
The second objection—the supposition is too improbable—is also interesting because it is the heart and soul of a mystery that the obvious solution is not the correct solution. And twins are not that uncommon. According to the statistics I found when googling, about 1 in 250 births is of identical twins. It’s possible that it’s a little less common in England, but this is not so uncommon that no one would think of it. It’s not nearly as esoteric as, say, a poison which hasn’t been discovered by science yet.
I think it’s the combination of being uncommon and explaining everything which makes it unfair. It’s not the sort of thing so likely that anyone in the story will do anything to rule it out, and it certainly will explain away just about anything inconvenient in the story. As such it’s a perennial possibility that the reader has no good way to rule out. That being the case, it should be ruled out as a matter of course and positive hints as to its possibility included if one is going to go down that route.
The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:
This is a rule of perfection; it is not of the esse of the detective story to have a Watson at all. But if he does exist, he exists for the purpose of letting the reader have a sparring partner, as it were, against whom he can pit his brains. ‘I may have been a fool,’ he says to himself as he puts the book down, ‘but at least I wasn’t such a doddering fool as poor old Watson.’
This is an interesting commandment because, as Fr. Knox notes in his commentary, a Watson is entirely optional. Plenty of good detective stories have no Watson. In fact, thinking over my favorite detective series, the only one which has a Watson is Sherlock Holmes—that is, the only Watson in my favorite detective stories is the original.
Occasionally Poirot had Captain Hastings, but he’s much rarer in the actual Poirot stories than he is in the David Suchet TV series. In the Lord Peter Wimsey stories Charles Parker was more of a co-detective than a Watson and Harriet Vane certainly was a co-detective. Hugh Berringar was a co-detective with Cadfael. Jessica Fletcher usually didn’t have anyone investigating with her and the gang in Scooby Doo was a team.
Interestingly, I’ve also read all but one of Fr. Knox’s Miles Bredon mysteries and there is no Watson character in those, either. His wife is sometimes his foil, but she is generally a co-detective, using very complementary skills to his.
As something of an aside, but also somewhat on point, police characters who occupy an in-between state as a sort-of Watson and a sort-of co-detective don’t seem to last. I’m basing this on an admittedly small sample size, but in Lord Peter Wimsey Charles Parker was a major character in the first two books, a fairly prominent character in the third, then progressively dwindled in significance until he becomes just a minor footnote in the last few (he married Lord Peter’s sister before his slide into irrelevance).
In the Miles Bredon stories, Inspector Leyland is a major character in the first two novels, then a mostly ancillary character in the third, and absent entirely from the fourth and fifth novels.
By contrast, the at first under-sheriff and later sheriff Hugh Beringar is absent from only a few Cadfael stories—The Summer of the Danes and Brother Cadfael’s Penance come to mind—which are, admittedly, later on, but The Holy Thief is between them and Hugh is a significant character in it.
It’s interesting to contrast the character of Hugh Beringar with Charles Parker and Inspector Leyland because it gets somewhat to the problems with a partial-Watson. By contrast to the other two, Hugh Beringar was intelligent and quick-witted. A scene which particularly stands out in my memory was from Saint Peter’s Faire, where after telling Cadfael that he too had deduced something Cadfael did, he said, “I may not pick up on all the subtleties but since knowing you’ve I’ve had to keep my wits about me” (or words to that effect). Since he was intelligent he was allowed to have a personality.
Charles Parker and Inspector Leyland, by contrast, partially serving the function of a Watson, couldn’t really have much in the way of personality. An everyman simply can’t be very distinctive or he ceases to be an everyman. It’s not, of course, strictly true that Charles Parker had no personality—we did learn that he read theology in his off hours to relax from his official duties. But we never found out that he learned anything from it; this passtime never informed anything he said.
Leyland didn’t even have any hobbies that I can recall reading about.
What makes these police inspectors different from Watson was, I think, the nature of their attachment to the detective—happenstance. Watson, by contrast, was attached to Holmes by friendship. Oh, granted, Charles Parker was in theory a friend of Wimsey, but we never saw any of it and Wimsey wasn’t really the sort of man to have friends. Holmes and Watson, by contrast, really loved each other and were comrades. Watson accompanied Holmes purely because he was devoted to him and Holmes brought him because Watson was his friend.
Cadfael and Hugh form an interesting comparison to both; Hugh was an officer of the law but also a close friend of Cadfael. In fact, Hugh and Cadfael were close enough that Cadfael was godfather to Hugh’s first son. Even when Hugh had no part in an investigation he might show up to spend Cadfael merely for the pleasure of company. And therein we see what’s necessary for a police friend to stay a character—his office must be his secondary connection to the detective, even if it was his original connection.
It is not viable, long-term, to have the same police inspector working with the same detective on every case. (Though I will grant that Monk made it work to some degree, since Monk was a consultant. Ditto for Sean Spencer in Psyche. That said, police consultants come with their own problems since they need to operate under police rules, and there’s an inherent tension with the police constantly hiring someone to do their job for them. Psych got around this by being a comedy and playing this tension for laughs.)
So coming back to the Watson in a story—I think that Fr. Knox is mostly correct, but a true Watson is the exception rather than the rule. It is common for detectives to not act entirely on their own—it is not good for man to be alone—but co-detectives are far more common and I think generally a better choice. And co-detectives should be intelligent; they are characters on their own, but they are also somewhat of a stand-in for the reader helping the detective and who would prefer to think himself incompetent?
Either way, it works much better for the detective and his associates to have a genuine affection for each other.
One of my favorite movies to watch when I’m in the mood for something comfortable is a mostly forgotten film starring John Cusak, Catherine Zeta Jones, Julia Roberts, and Billy Crystal called America’s Sweethearts.
The premise is that Eddie Thomas (Cusak) and Gwen Harrison (Zeta Jones) were an incredibly popular hollywood couple until Gwen cheated on Eddie with another actor in a movie they were in, Hector. The movie, Time Over Time, during the filming of which those events happened is about to be released but the eccentric director, Hal Weidmann, won’t show anyone the movie until the press junket. So the publicist for the film (Crystal) must put together the press junket with the two stars of the movies not being on speaking terms and there being no film to show the press. Hilarity ensues.
And hilarity does ensue; it’s a very funny movie. It pokes a lot of fun at Hollywood and the selfishness and complete dishonesty that characterizes the movie industry. Which brings me to the modern difficulty in watching movies of knowing how awful the people who makes movies are.
I think this may be best summarized by sci-fi author Rob Kroese, a few years ago, in response to some idiocy out of Hollywood in the wake of some disaster or other:
Nice to see celebrities taking time off from raping each other to condemn prayer.
(As a side note, there seems to be law of human behavior that a person’s private virtue is inversely proportional to the number of public statements he makes condemning vice in others. Or, more briefly: virtue signaling is often camouflage.)
So, the question come up, unavoidably: does one go on watching movies in spite of their deeply flawed origins?
I think that the answer is yes, but it’s not a question which can simply be dismissed; people who simply say “who cares?” about this are just people who don’t know enough—they’ve never looked in the kitchen to see how the sausage is made.
(I should note that I’m talking about things which do not enrich Hollywood further or do so very minimally. I already own the DVD of America’s Sweethearts so watching it again puts no more money in the hands of the Hollywood. And even buying DVDs of older movies does little to support the current degeneracy of Hollywood, though strictly speaking more than zero. But for older movies, much of the money goes to people who are no longer working in the industry or their descendants because they’re dead. Life is more complicated when you’re talking about watching a new movie in a Theater.)
There are two reasons why the answer is yes—that we should still enjoy the movies made by the wretches of Hollywood. The first is practical (and probably more accessible), the second is philosophical (and more conclusive).
The practical reason is that this is a fallen world and everything is made by wretches. Some are worse than others, but even the best men will inevitably have their work tainted by their imperfections. Worse still, from a practical perspective, many men (rightly) keep their vices secret (so as not to encourage others in vice), and so one will not know what vices secretly infect their work. When it comes to the near-devil-worshippers of Hollywood, one is at least forewarned (and thus fore-armed) against their messages of lust, sloth, and pride. This does not remove the danger, and certainly doesn’t make their work preferable to people who aren’t consciously trying to promote evils, but it does put it in the realm of what can be done safely—or at least as safely as anything can be done in this fallen world.
The philosophical reason is more complicated, but at its heart is the philosophical insight that evil is a negative, not a positive, thing. Evil is the (partial) absence of being—it is a thing being only partially itself. This partial being warps and twists things, but it is impossible to be purely evil—a thing which is pure evil would completely not exist. There’s a sense in which Nothing (with a capital N) is pure evil, but that’s not really different from saying that nothing is pure evil.
This means that in all things which exist, there is good. Evil does not, properly speaking, taint the good in a thing. What it does do is disguise the good. This is not, however, an insurmountable problem. A tainted thing can be safely consumed, since the taint has a positive existence—you can’t drink a poisoned glass of wine and drink only the wine but not the poison. But a disguise can be seen through.
Seeing through disguised good is a skill and thus a person can be good or bad at it; this is highly contextual to the person, the good, and the disguise. What one person may watch safely another may be misled by; it requires wisdom to tell the difference.
The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
In his 1939 commentary on his commandments, Fr. Knox said:
Any writer can make a mystery by telling us that at this point the great Picklock Holes suddenly bent down and picked up from the ground an object which he refused to let his friend see. He whispers ‘Ha!’ and his face grows grave – all that is illegitimate mystery – making. The skill of the detective author consists in being able to produce his clues and flourish them defiantly in our faces: ‘There!’ he says, ‘what do you make of that?’ and we make nothing.
I agree with this commandment, though with some reservations.
Before I get into that, I want to mention a fun fact about where the word “clue” comes from: it was originally “clew,” which meant a ball of yarn or thread. It came to have its current meaning from the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, when Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of yarn—a clew—which enabled him to get out of the maze in which the Minotaur lived. A clew was thus, by metaphor, something which enabled someone to get out of a maze of confusion by following it. (The spelling “clue” came about in the 16th century.)
To begin with my agreement: something I’ve talked about before in my discussion of these commandments is the difference between mystery and mere obscurantism. A mystery is a thing which internal consistency. This internal consistency makes it is possible, through learning some of the pieces, to figure out the rest. Mere obscurantism is just a form of “I’m thinking of a number, try to guess which. It was 7.73792555161789434!” There’s no skill involved in defying someone else to read your mind.
This, along with Commandment #6 (accidents), may be one of the most often broken commandments. Writing mysteries is hard, and resorting to cheap tricks is a perennial temptation. That said, there are ways to break this commandment which are not cheating.
The one which comes to mind first is where the clue is mere confirmation of the detective’s theory. It does have to be a theory which is not only supported by the evidence but the only theory which is—otherwise it violates Commandment #6—but as long as the clue is merely confirmation of what the reader should have guessed, its being withheld is only a way of being playful and signaling to the reader that all of the requisite clues have now been shown.
This does (basically) require a Watson character that the detective is encouraging to guess the solution; if the story is told from an omniscient perspective rather than the perspective of the Watson, this is harder to pull off. The author may have to resort to speaking directly to the reader, as Sayers did in my least favorite of her books (The Five Red Herrings), “Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.”
The other way to violate this commandment—fairly—which I can think of is not very significant, but is probably worth mentioning. There is nothing wrong with the detective withholding clues for a short time. If the detective finds several things and refuses to reveal them in the presence of witnesses but waits until he’s alone with his confidant, there is no harm in this. There is no great benefit either, of course, but it can be used to create some drama because of suspicion falling on whoever it was the detective did not want to see the clue.
It is also possible to separate the finding of a clue and the realization that it was a clue as long as the detective is also in the dark at the time it was found. Supposing that there was a penny on a night stand which was a clue, and it was hidden among some other coins, the detective could pick them all up and put them into a bag without noticing the penny, only to realize that the penny might be significant and then to look into the bag to look at the dates on all the coins present. In a technical sense the clue would have been discovered earlier, but only revealed later. This is fair enough in a mystery novel, so long as the detective reveals the clue when he finally looks closely enough at it to notice its significance.
By an odd chain of thoughts not worth repeating because of the extensive, uninteresting context required to make it intelligible, I’ve begun to wonder about the nature of punditry itself, especially in the Internet age. Can a man continually comment on current events and keep his soul?
I should qualify the above question with a pundit who wishes to remain popular; obviously one can keep an equilibrium of one’s comments on today’s outrage are effectively a reprint of one’s comments on yesterday’s outrage; repeating the same thing endlessly poses, I think, little danger, but it also comes with almost no prospects of being frequently read or listened to.
It’s rather the necessity which people who wish to be frequently read or listened to, to be always saying something new, which seems to me to pose the problem, for the simple reason that most outrages of the day don’t matter. It’s a simple thing to verify; just pick a year in the last 20 and without looking try to give an exhaustive list of the extremely important things which happened in that year. If you’ve got an especially good memory, your list might have a half dozen things on it.
Yet during that year, there was a new outrage which everyone was talking about (on the internet) every day or two. These things clearly matter very little, and the danger to one’s soul comes, I think, from having to constantly pretend that they’re important.
(I should note that there’s a sense in which all things are important—God loves beetles, after all—but in that sense the weather today, what a child did at school, and how a sports team did in their match yesterday are also important and not obviously less deserving of attention.)
In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:
This applies only where the author personally vouches for the statement that the detective is a detective; a criminal may legitimately dress up as a detective, as in The Secret of Chimneys, and delude the other actors in the story with forged references.
In many ways this is a counterpart to the first commandment, specifically the part about “but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know”, so some of that analysis will apply here.
Incidentally, I can’t help but wonder what Fr. Knox would have thought of the final Poirot novel, Curtain. (Technically, it should be noted, the detective in the novel is Captain Hastings, not Poirot, and there is more than one murderer in the story.) It seems like Agatha Christie made a habit of violating Fr. Knox’s ten commandments and doing it in a way that worked.
Be that as it may, I agree whole-heartedly with this commandment. Having the detective commit the crime destroys the basic structure of a detective story and turns it into a weird mockery of itself; a detective who merely investigates himself becomes nothing but an empty puzzle with no meaning or value.
Having said that, this commandment is one of the least transgressed commandments in detective fiction. There’s a highly practical element to this: most people write series of detective stories featuring the same detective. Having the detective be the murderer once will ruin the enjoyment for the readers of any subsequent stories; having him be the murderer more than once will ruin even the surprise. Who would read a story in which the central mystery was the foregone conclusion of a twist which can be relied upon? So the mere fact that mysteries are written as series tends to safeguard writers from this bad decision. It is true that sometimes self-interest will do the work of virtue.
No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:
That is perhaps too strongly stated; it is legitimate for the detective to have inspirations which he afterwards verifies, before he acts on them, by genuine investigation. And again, he will naturally have moments of clear vision, in which the bearings of the observations hitherto made will become suddenly evident to him. But he must not be allowed, for example, to look for the lost will in the works of the grandfather clock because an unaccountable instinct tells him that that is the right place to search. He must look there because he realizes that that is where he would have hidden it himself if he had been in the criminal’s place. And in general it should be observed that every detail of his thought – process, not merely the main outline of it, should be conscientiously audited when the explanation comes along at the end.
This may be the commandment in Fr. Knox’s decalogue with which I agree most strongly (with a few caveats). Curiously, along with Commandment #8 (the detective must not conceal evidence from the reader), this may be the commandment which is most often broken in detective fiction.
I agree with it because the whole point of a detective is to detect, not merely to be the recipient of pure luck. Pure luck is the domain of comedies or, in some curious cases, of tragedies. It is not the domain of detective fiction. And I should note that this is true whether one is talking about play-fair detective fiction or not. Even if the reader has no earthly way to guess the solution to the problem, the detective should.
This really gets to the question of what a detective story is. A Franciscan friar to is a good friend of mine suggested that the fundamental structure of a detective story is that some villain, through the misuse of reason, has disturbed the natural order of things and that the detective, through the right use of a superior reason, restores the right ordering of things. It is, fundamentally, the Christian story—humanity has messed up the world and God condescends with us to restore it.
This structure to the detective story only works if it is the detective whose right use of reason restores the natural order. Luck and unaccountable intuitions are to detective fiction what the Gnostic and later Arian heresies were to Christianity. Just as those heresies turned Christ into a creature and thus from a savior into a mere conduit of information, luck and unaccountable intuitions turn the detective from a savior into a mere conduit of information. If Christ is a creature, and the detective merely a lucky fool, neither is capable of saving himself, let alone us.
This rule is violated so often precisely because writing detective fiction is hard. This is especially true of mystery novels. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, mystery novels and mystery short stories are fundamentally different creatures. The short story is a puzzle at the end of which—preferably on the next page—is a solution. The novel must be the tale of the assembly of all the clues necessary to solve the problem or the author must pick whether he wants the story to be unsolvable or to drag on long after it should have finished.
But to make a mystery novel the tale of the assembly of all the necessary clues, there must be some reason why the clues satisfy two opposing conditions:
They are not readily available
They are available
There are a variety of ways to satisfy these two—if not, there would be no detective fiction—but they tend to boil down to a few generalities:
You have to figure out where to look.
The clue doesn’t exist yet.
You already have the clue but it doesn’t mean anything until you find additional evidence satisfying some other condition on this list.
(To be clear, how one goes about doing these things are what make the story, and there are endless ways to do these in fresh and interesting ways.)
The second type of clue—the clue only coming into existence later in the story—requires a certain type of story to work; specifically, one where the murderer is still active. It’s a great type of story, but if it’s not the story one is writing, it’s not an available option. And in that case, we’re left with #1 and #3. And the obtaining of clues which make other clues significant in #3 will resolve into #1, most of the time, because otherwise it’s a police procedural, not a detective story.
So the big trick to writing a mystery story is really figuring out where to look for clues. And the mystery writer is hung, to some degree, on the horns of a dilemma: if the location of the clues are obvious, anyone could follow them up. If the location of the clues are not obvious, why on earth would the detective think to look for them where they are?
There are, of course, ways to unhook oneself from the horns of this dilemma; this commandment forbids the author from simply waving the problem away.
This post is already long enough, but I will mention the ways to unhook oneself from this dilemma, if briefly (and, I should note, they generally work best when combined):
Specialized knowledge—this runs the risk of being simply esoteric, rather than mysterious, but in a detective story which is more educational than adventurous, the detective giving away the requisite knowledge when he comes across the clue can make for an enjoyable story. Detectives are, after all, supposed to be not merely brilliant, but also learned. And mystery readers do, as a rule, enjoy learning things. They do need to be real things, though (see rule #4, poisons).
Psychological insight—Probably the best example of this is Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. If the detective can think like the criminal he will be able to predict what the criminal did and therefore where to look for clues.
Gaining the trust of people who have clues—this can easily be done badly (chiefly where the person shouldn’t need his trust to be gained), but it is an extremely workable way to withhold clues for a time. This all too often is an occasion for the detective to become a liar, though; gaining trust under false pretenses is distressingly common in detective fiction.
Legwork needed—This is a case where the insight of the detective leads to knowing, not exactly where a clue is, but a small number of places to look. It will take time to explore all of the possibilities until finding the clue. (This works best when there is some reason the possibilities must be investigated by the detective himself, generally to be found elsewhere on this list.)
Labwork, police work, etc—chemical analysis of substances, the interviewing of every lawyer in London or everyone living within three blocks of the murder, etc. all take a lot of time. When this is done off-screen, it produces space in which the detective can be doing something interesting. N.B. That interesting thing that the detective does while the poor off-screen laborers toil in the clue-mines should be something that either explains the clue when it comes in or else the arrival of the clue should have no value other than to explain what the detective found while he was occupying the reader’s attention. Anyone can cavort with an attractive member of the opposite sex for a few days until the solution to the problem they have not advanced a wit falls into their lap.
Delayed clues—this needs to be used with extreme care because it can easily become cheating, but clues which only show up once the post office has delivered them, or after some device with a timer reveals them, can work. The clue absolutely has to be mysterious on its own, and require everything the detective did in the interim to be meaningful, or the author has wasted the reader’s time until the clue shows up. The reverse could, in theory, work; but it doesn’t work. That is, the previous work being mysterious until the clue shows up in the mail will always feel like a cheap deus ex machina. In either case, there has to be a very good reason why the clue was intentionally delayed, and moreover, it absolutely cannot be the clue which solves the mystery.
There are probably other ways, too, though they’re likely to be some sort of variant on the methods above. And I want to stress again that giving a general description of the structure in no way implies that the stories must be formulaic or un-creative; the beauty of any story is in its specifics. It is no more saying that a story is formulaic because there are only so many workable structures for their plots than it saying that all people look alike to say that all men have the same bones in their skeleton. A man without a skull is not bold and daring, and a man with a skull is not boring and repetitive. It’s what’s inside his skull that really counts.
In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:
Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial is over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of ‘the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo’, you had best put it down at once; it is bad. The only exception which occurs to my mind—there are probably others—is Lord Ernest Hamilton’s Four Tragedies of Memworth.
This is a rule that, in its specifics, is really only about a time and place in which most of us do not live (England in the 1920s and 1930s). But I think we can both generalize it and answer the question of why it was so at the same time.
Let’s start by looking at the phrase which Fr. Knox suggests is a sufficient warning-sign of a bad book: “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo”.
The first thing to notice about this phrase is that it’s simply wrong. The epicanthic fold typical of the Chinese (and others) looks different than the eyes of those who don’t have them, but it really does not make the eye look like a slit. Eyes look like slits when the eyelid is mostly closed, and this is true of all human beings. Saying that the Chinese were “slit-eyed” was a sort of cant, not an actual description.
One of the curious things about literary traditions (whether in the printed word or in movies and television) is how much it is possible for storytelling to reference other stories, rather than real life. It can be a valuable sort of short-hand, but it can also perpetuate entirely fake atmospheres and backstories.
And the slit-eyed Chin Loo is, I suspect, exactly this sort of reference to an evocative but bad story. I have no idea where the unrealistic Chinaman first appeared in English fiction, but I strongly suspect that it was in a very vividly told story, all the more vivid for being new. This will have impressed people, who borrow elements of the story for themselves, and among those whose experience of the world—or at least of the Chinese—comes primarily from books rather than from people, this becomes its own sort of reality.
So we have the first element of why a book which references “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo” is a bad book—it is a book which is fictionalizing, not real life, but another book. This is fine for satires, of course, since that’s what a satire is—but a satire is all about the distance between another book and reality. As we have a copy of a copy of a copy, the distance to reality will get further and further without the author realizing it.
(There is, also, the simple correlation that lazy authors rarely write good books, but I pass that observation as uninteresting.)
The other thing we can see in the phrase “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo” is a cheap form of exoticism which, in detective stories, is often a means of obscurantism. By obscurantism, I mean making the story appear mysterious, not by creating a tangle, but simply by referring to knowledge not commonly held, but if known, makes the entire thing clear from the beginning. For example, if you knew at the outset of a story that the Mexican mocking tarantula leaves a bite that looks exactly like the byte of the (east Asian) king cobra and moreover that it is driven into a fury whenever a red-headed woman sings “hush little baby” at night, the death of a red-headed woman whose window was open and who bears what looks like the bite of a king cobra, and who moreover was in the habit of singing “hush little baby” each night for some reason, would not be a mystery at all. No more than a person who died of a dog bite where there is a vicious dog nearby would be.
A mystery requires an apparent contradiction, at least of the evidence to a probably innocent person, but better yet an apparent contradiction to telling us who the murderer is. In extreme cases it can be an apparent contradiction to there being a murder at all. It should not be, simply, the ignorance of the reader to the obvious solution.
The worst form of obscurantism, it should be noted, is the obscurantism of purely fictitious knowledge. It is bad enough when a man looks to have died of natural causes but was actually poised by a rare but real poison that, had the reader known of it, would have been obvious from the start. It’s simply intolerable when the poison doesn’t really exist. (But about poisons specifically, that’s rule #4.) And this goes equally well for motives. The specifics of the motive will, necessarily, be fictitious. This is owing to the fact that all the people in the story are fictitious. But the type of motive must be real. If the victim transgressed a point of honor which is not a point of honor among any real people, this is simply cheating.
And here we come to Mr. Loo, who, in being so exotic, can be made to be anything the author needs in the moment. He can kill because he’s a member of a sect whose dark god demands it, or because of some arcane business deal back in China, or because of some strange rule in the triad in which Mr. Loo is an agent. He has easy access to poisons we don’t know about, ways of killing use hair-thin needles or even just properly applied pressure, and all sorts of other means of killing about which the reader can know nothing because they are made up, but which the author does not necessarily feel is cheating because they were first made up in other books. He may interfere with evidence for arcane reasons of Chinese superstition. In short, being completely fake, he may be anything and the reader has no way of guessing what.
So I think that the other generalization of this rule is also a generalization of rule #4—the people must be fake but the motivations, tools, reactions, etc. of those fake people must all be real.
No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
In his 1939 commentary on the commandments, Fr. Knox said, about this:
There may be undiscovered poisons with quite unexpected reactions on the human system, but they have not been discovered yet, and until they are they must not be utilized in fiction; it is not cricket. Nearly all the cases of Dr. Thorndyke, as recorded by Mr. Austin Freeman, have the minor medical blemish; you have to go through a long science lecture at the end of the story in order to understand how clever the mystery was.
With regard to poisons, building on my earlier musings on poisons, I think the poisons really in question are those which ape death by natural causes. A heretofore undiscovered poison which kills in a way that is unmistakably by poison—if the victim’s face turns neon yellow, then he can’t breathe and, gasping, dies, then afterwards his entire body becomes fluorescent green and glows int he dark for two full days—I suspect that this would be cricket. It would be odd, to be sure, but there is certainly no clue being hidden from the reader. The author would just about have to go out of his way to have the detective recognize this fictional poison but not tell the reader about how it can be obtained and administered.
The real problem, I think, is a fictional poison which mimics natural causes. The fictional poison is, in this case, indistinguishable from magic, as far as the reader is concerned. The author can invent any fictional poison with any properties that he wants, so there is no way for the reader to guess what fictional poison the author invented.
Even this could be managed, though, with a bit of work. The trick would be to require that some poison must be deducible, and further, what innocent place the murderer hid the poison must also be deducible. I think it would have to culminate in the detective trying to force the murderer to eat the innocent thing and having him refuse. (Probably an alternative is trying the food out on a guinea pig, but in these sensitive days animal testing may not go over well with audiences.)
I think the case against the long science lecture at the end is more self-evident. The purpose of mystery fiction is to be fun, not to take the place of a college course. The other problem with coming at the end is that the mystery was thus cheating; if the long science lecture couldn’t have come earlier without giving away the plot, the mystery was mysterious only by being esoteric. There is no real difference here with require a long lecture in art history or reading the Chinese language; if the solution is easy given a certain set of background knowledge, the mystery is mysterious only by being obscure. And being obscure is the easiest thing in the world.
It is sometimes possible to work in a long science lecture at the beginning or in the middle of a work of detective fiction, since this becomes more interesting by clearly being a possible key to the problem, and moreover its placement prevents the author from being merely obscure instead of mysterious. That said, it’s probably still best to avoid it, or at least break it up into pieces.
Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
Fr. Knox’s 1939 commentary was:
I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in the kind of house where such devices might be expected. When I introduced one into a book myself, I was careful to point out beforehand that the house had belonged to Catholics in penal times. Mr. Milne’s secret passage in The Red House Mystery is hardly fair; if a modern house were so equipped – and it would be villainously expensive – all the countryside would be quite certain to know about it.
The secret passage was a common feature of detective fiction in the golden age of detective fiction (the inter-war period, roughly, 1919-1939), at least in English detective fiction. It’s far less common in American detective fiction for the reason which Fr. Knox mentions—it would be extraordinarily expensive to build a secret passage into a modern house. In very modern times it’s probably a little more doable, though it likely would have difficulty passing building codes and inspection (especially since inspections for house construction happen in phases, before the drywall is put up to conceal the interior of the walls).
But more to the point, there isn’t really much of any reason to put a secret passage into a house built at pretty much any time in America. In medieval England they were built into castles because castles were military fortifications and having an escape hole can be a good idea in a siege. During the time when the English monarchy was persecuting Catholic priests and executing them, recusant Catholics (in the aristocracy) would install priest holes and secret passages for getting priests into and out of their houses because getting the sacraments was worth a lot of money and trouble.
Houses in America were never designed as military fortifications—American houses were all constructed in the age of the canon—and it was never so illegal to be a Catholic in America that one had to hide priests in secret rooms to protect their lives from a police force which actively searched for them.
Basically, while in old English buildings secret passages might be a holdover from a time when they made sense, there was never a time in America where a secret passage in a house was anything but an eccentricity.
It is just doable to put a secret passage in an American house as an eccentricity—a rich old man who liked to spy on his guests, that sort of thing—but about the only place one can actually find secret passages in American buildings are related to the speakeasies during prohibition. However, those will pretty much all have been disassembled by now since commercial architecture (in America) doesn’t tend to last. The other problem is that a secret passage from, say, a nickel-and-dime store into what used to be a speakeasy and is now a storage room or perhaps a jewelry store or a hair salon doesn’t have a ton of possibility.
It has some possibility, of course. I don’t think it would work for two businesses which are open at the same time, but perhaps going from a closed business to kill someone in the open business could work. That said, the field of possible suspects is likely to be either too big or too small, depending on whether the store was broken into (or, equivalently, a customer stayed behind closing) or someone had to have the key to it.
Having said all of this, secret passages serve an odd function even in English mysteries. One of their principle uses is as a solution to a locked room mystery. The problem with them as such a solution is that they border on magic. The author can put the secret passage from anywhere to anywhere—with respect to the plot, if not precisely with respect to the architecture of the house—much like a magic spell can overcome any limitations (such as a locked room) without giving away anything about the sorcerer.
That said, a secret passage can still be interesting if it has some sort of complicated lock and there are clues to how to solve the lock to open the secret passage. And I’m happy to say that such a mystery would comply with Fr. Knox’s rule, since the existence of the secret passage must be known in order for the clues as to how one finds and opens the secret passage to make any sense at all.
Mystery writers often put mystery writers into their plots, one way or another. (It’s a minority, but way more than one or two.)
It would be fun to vary this up and put a writer of hard boiled detective stories – the story of thing that would start Humphrey Bogart if he were still alive – at a country house for an English cozy murder mystery. Much fun could be had of the police consulting him for ideas and him having no ideas but to wait for the murderer to kidnap him.
Fellow Silver Empire author Kit Sun Cheah has a kickstarter going for his latest story, Dungeon Samurai. There’s more information over at the kickstarter, but here’s the blurb:
Yamada Yuuki is an ordinary Japanese college student with an extraordinary hobby: the classical martial art of Kukishin-ryu. One evening, a demon rips through the fabric of space-time, abducts everyone in his dojo, and transports them to another world. To return home, Yamada and his friends must join forces with other abductees to conquer the dungeon that runs through the heart of the world.
I’ve read the serialized version of his short novel, Invincible, which was quite good. Kit Sun, a Singaporean, writes in English but makes the Chinese flavor of that story come through delightfully. If you like adventure stories—or just good writing—I recommend checking the kickstarter out.
It just occurred to me that in the matter of detective fiction, during the early days of mysteries, the private detective was often on the forefront of forensic analysis of evidence. Sherlock Holmes ran all sorts of chemical analyses and Lord Peter Wimsey dusted for fingerprints. Holmes was famous for examining things with his magnifying glass and Lord Peter would send all sorts of samples off to chemists he knew for analysis. With plenty of exceptions, the police tended to content themselves with taking witness statements, seeing who got the most money in the victim’s will, and jumping to conclusions.
The forensic habits of modern detectives seem, by contrast, muted. Again, I’m sure that there are plenty of exceptions, but I think that modern police have acquired a reputation for having forensic teams which are very professional and thorough, and moreover have access to forensic labs which have extraordinarily expensive equipment.
I’m not sure why this should spoil the fun; there are professionals who made all of the gadgets which MacGyver made during his adventures, yet it was always interesting when MacGyver made them.
I suspect that the answer actually lies in the realm of genre, rather than structure. There is an entire genre of mystery called the “police procedural”. In it the story isn’t really so much of a mystery as merely following the police on the twists and turns as new evidence shows up, much of it forensic in nature. If one still watched broadcast television, I believe one could watch a different show each night in which the police sequence DNA to identify people.
If one really likes that sort of thing, one can get far more of it from police procedurals. As a result, there’s less fun in including it in mystery novels.
There’s another element, which is that DNA sequencing is a bit too much like magic to really fit into a detective story. Granted, it’s not all that conceptually different from fingerprints, but I don’t think that fingerprints really lasted long as a denouement—if they ever were much of one. Fingerprints because a standard part of police procedure in the west in the very early 1900s, so in the 1910s a detective dusting for them had at least the element of novelty to it.
They’re not really interesting, however. In the structure of a story, a fingerprint or DNA sample which proves who the murderer was is not really any different from a witness who was found at the end of the book. If that’s the solution, the detective did not really solve anything, he merely found someone who knew the answer and asked.
As such in modern detective stories, fingerprints and DNA evidence become like cell phones in horror movies—a nuisance which the author must spend a little effort to explain away. In modern horror movies there tends to be a scene where the main character either doesn’t have cell reception or his phone has run out of battery. In mystery novels our culprits must wear gloves and possibly scrub the floor with bleach.