Warning: This post contains major spoilers about the plot of The Last Jedi. If you haven’t see it, stop reading now (and may the force be with you).
Still here? Good. Let’s talk about The Last Jedi, the eighth Star Wars movie in the Skywalker Saga, the ninth live-action Star Wars, and the tenth to be theatrically released. And if that bit of precise accounting didn’t tip you off, let me just come out and say it: I’m a huge Star Wars fan. The first novel I ever read was a Star Wars book, and I’ve probably read about a hundred since then. But of all the new Star Wars stories that have been released in my lifetime, the reaction to this move has been the most, well, weird.
It’s A Hit, Right?
Critics seem to love the movie. And so do most audiences. However, some fan reviews on sites like Rotten Tomatoes seem to show that a large number of fans really, really do not like this movie. Even major news outlets like the New York Times have investigated this strange incongruity. And of course in today’s world of fake news, there are conspiracy theories on both sides. Are all the bad audience reviews actually from bots and trolls? Did Disney pressure critics into giving glowing reviews or were critical raves the actual the secret reason behind director Rian Johnson’s gosh-darned friendliness?
The reality is probably more complicated than just one answer. Put another way: It’s true — all of it, at least to some extent. But the real reason that The Last Jedi has had such a mixed response among die-hard fans is that the message the movie delivers is a hard one to accept.
A Movie About Failure
The Last Jedi is about many things — subverting expectations, economic inequality, finding your purpose, and on and on. But most of all, ‘The Last Jedi’ is about failure. The plot practically hits us over the head with the good guys’ unrelenting failure.
The Resistance’s escape from the Ileenium system fails.
Finn and Roses’ mission to find Maz’s codebreaker friend fails.
Rey’s attempt to bring Ben Solo back to the light fails.
Poe’s mutiny fails.
Holdo’s plan to distract the First Order from the fleeing rebel transports fails.
Finn and Roses’ mission to disable the First Order’s tracking fails.
Poe’s plan to take out the battering ram cannon fails.
Leia’s plan to get help from their allies in the Outer Rim fails.
Even Luke Skywalker himself declares, “The legacy of the Jedi is failure.” Watching a movie with so much unrelenting, unrepentant failure is, frankly, exhausting and frustrating. It’s no wonder a vocal subset of fans have risen up to denounce The Last Jedi, wishing in vain that it be entirely removed from the Star Wars canon and remade.
Of course, that won’t happen. Despite some people’s insistence that the movie itself was a failure, it’s beloved by critics and audiences and is on track to become the second biggest movie of all time.
The Greatest Teacher
So what is the point? Why did writer/director Rian Johnson subject us to so much unpleasantness? The answer of course comes from Yoda, the source of most of the wisdom in the Star Wars galaxy (and a pretty good source of wisdom in our galaxy too).
“The greatest teacher, failure is.”
Yoda says this line to Luke, admonishing him for failing to keep his promise to pass on what he had learned. Luke had been focusing on teaching others about his success and mastery of the Force, but when faced with failure, he stopped teaching. Like the fans who couldn’t accept what The Last Jedi has to offer, Luke walked away from it all. He saw his own failure and the failure of the Jedi before him and decided that the Jedi needed to end.
Some of the greatest minds in our own galaxy share Yoda’s take on failure. Thomas Edison once said,
“Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”
As Edison (and Yoda) point out, failure is critical to learning, to finding a new way forward, to innovating. In fact, by ignoring the lessons of failure and only focusing on your successes, you’re likely to succumb to what behavioral psychologists call the survivorship bias. In survivorship bias, you might look at the practices of successful people or companies and assume that their common habits helped drive their success, but what if all the people and companies that ultimately failed did those same things as well?
The US Navy nearly succumb to survivorship bias during World War II as they looked for ways to stop their planes from being shot down by Nazis. The Navy hired mathematician Abraham Wald to help them analyze the pattern bullet holes in planes that had returned from combat. The Navy’s plan was to reinforce in the areas with the most bullet holes. However, Wald noticed that they were only studying the “surviving” planes. But if these planes survived despite their bullet holes, they must have been shot in places that were not critical to the plane. Wald came to the realization that it was the areas that the survivors hadn’t been hit that must be fatal spots to get shot. So, in the end, the Navy reinforced the areas without any bullet holes.
Thinking about cases of failure is still fairly rare today. However, at the 2017 O’Reilly Design Conference, Steve Portigal gave a talk on tips for conducting User Experience Research that was unlike what you’d expect from a conference speaker. Instead of focusing on career triumphs, he talked entirely about what he called “war stories.” Experiences from himself and others where things went terribly wrong. Sharing war stories is a bit of a passion of Steve’s. You can check out his book and blog for more.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to focus solely on success. We want to hear stories about heroes who triumph against all odds. But life is about more than just winning. It’s full of stories of failure, too. We ignore them at our peril.
Unfortunately, learning from failure is hard. It’s tempting to turn a blind eye to failure and pretend it never happened. But even once you recognize the failure, it’s just as tempting to get stuck in the failure, to become attached to it. Luke is so attached to his grief and guilt over the failures of his past that in The Last Jedi both he and his former-apprentice-turned-bad-guy want to burn down the institutions that failed them. And some Star Wars fans are so attached to the Star Wars stories of the past that ‘The Last Jedi’ fails to repeat that they’re ready to declare Star Wars dead.
Of course, Yoda is there to offer Luke (and us) a better way. “We are what they outgrow” he tells Luke, describing the nature of student and teacher, past and future greatness. Instead of burning down the past, we should use our past as a basis for evolution. Sure, the Jedi of the past ultimately failed, but that doesn’t mean it’s time for the Jedi to end. It just means that Rey needs to find a better way to be a Jedi. Any maybe we all need to find better ways to be Star Wars fans.
After all, the first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem. Only by recognizing and then accepting failure can we grow. Without failure, we could never hope to innovate.
Also, that milk scene was pretty gross, right?