Learning to Write to Theme with The Last Jedi

Bryan Young opines that no screenplay in recent memory has theme play into every character and every subplot as well as Rian Johnson’s blueprint for The Last Jedi. It’s a Swiss watch of theme and character.
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Bryan Young opines that no screenplay in recent memory has theme play into every character and every subplot as well as Rian Johnson’s blueprint for The Last Jedi. It’s a Swiss watch of theme and character.

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Watching a film unfold where the theme plays into every character and every subplot is an incredible experience. Bryan Young opines that no screenplay in recent memory does this as well as Rian Johnson’s blueprint for The Last Jedi. It’s a Swiss watch of theme and character.

Writing to theme is hard. It’s hard because sometimes you don’t quite have it until you’ve already got a draft finished, then you have to go back and rewrite every scene with those controlling ideas in mind.

Watching a film unfold where the theme plays into every character and every subplot is an incredible experience, doubly so the second time you watch the film. In my experience, no screenplay in recent memory does this as well as Rian Johnson’s blueprint for The Last Jedi. It’s a Swiss watch of theme and character.

“Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view,” Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. And this sets the stage for every major character beat and conflict in The Last Jedi. Interpretation from point of view. It’s nothing new to Star Wars, but Johnson used his screenplay to enhance this idea in elegant, complicated ways. Even the side characters and the villains grapple with this, leaving every major situation dependent on this controlling idea.

Let’s go through, character by character, and see how this theme presses down on them, how it complicates their lives and the story, and how it drives the engine of a film that builds to one of the most powerful climaxes in the Star Wars saga.

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Poe Dameron

Let’s start with Poe Dameron, brash pilot and burgeoning leader. As far as protagonists, the film starts largely from his point of view, so it’s here we begin our journey of breaking down theme. Poe’s personal challenge is that he has a hard time following orders. He sees situations in very clear, black and white terms: Action A will yield Result B, any casualties in service to Result B are acceptable collateral damage. As the film opens, he sees the situation differently from General Leia Organa. She orders him to return and directly disobeys her in order to take down the First Order dreadnought, Fulminatrix. He attacks on his own, which plays against the perception and point of view of the villains. General Hux sees a small, one-pilot fighter as no threat to his fleet, and so he doesn’t order a fighter scramble until it’s too late.

Poe’s plan works—to a point. He’s able to destroy the dreadnought. This is definitely a helpful bonus for the Resistance, but he’s done it at the cost of many, many ships, including their entire bomber fleet. He’s demoted and can’t quite understand why. His job was to get in an X-wing and blow things up, so that’s exactly what he did. From his perspective, there was no room for nuance of thought or shades of gray. This is something he’s forced to grapple with through the rest of the film, especially after his demotion. After another First Order attack, General Organa is grievously wounded and it’s announced that a new leader will take her place in organizing the evacuation of the remaining Resistance forces. For a moment, Poe’s point of view tells him that he could be this leader. You can see the eagerness on his face before the announcement, and then the shock when he discovers it’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (played in the film by Laura Dern.) Thanks to his recent demotion and poor decisions, she doesn’t trust Poe.

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When Finn and Rose come to him with a plan to escape the pursuing First Order, Poe is convinced that he’s the only one who can save the Resistance. At this point, he sets plans into motion that will inadvertently destroy most of what he holds dear.

All the while, he’s weighed down upon by the philosophies of two different characters: Leia and Holdo. These two both influence him positively until, at the end of the movie, he’s presented with a situation where he can sacrifice his people for the slimmest of chances of blowing something up or he can be a leader and retreat with their lives. Finally, he’s able to make the right choice.

As an audience member, Poe’s interactions with Holdo are a master-class of point of view. Poe thinks Holdo is wrong and the script leads the audience to believe just that. Poe and the audience discover the audacity and wisdom in Holdo’s plan at the same time and force us to feel the same foolish sheepishness that Poe does and the same heartbreak when his actions lead to Holdo being forced to sacrifice herself for the survival of the Resistance. Every scene plays with Poe’s unique point of view and as he gets more information, so does the audience.

This play with point of view is exactly the reason Holdo couldn’t have been a character previously introduced in the films. Her creation as a new character is a purposeful tool in playing with the audience and their expectations of point of view. It’s a wonderful magic trick when the audience is finally given the same information about Holdo and we’re left to feel as sheepish as Poe does.

We’re thrilled when Poe learns his lesson and calls a retreat rather than “blowing something up.”

Every decision he made through the course of the film was based entirely on how he subjectively viewed a situation and acted based on it, playing into the larger theme of the piece.

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Finn

Finn’s perspective is one that might be the most misunderstood before having the benefit of critical analysis. For him, his point of view is split between the duty of a cause he may or may not believe in and his desire to remain ambivalent about the war and simply save Rey and escape with his own skin .

From his point of view, the Resistance is doomed and so is anyone who sticks with them, so he wants to find Rey and save them both from that fate. His dilemma is compounded when he meets Rose Tico. For her, her perspective is challenged instantly. Finn was someone she held up as a hero and admired. Her opinion shifts immediately when she realizes that he’s no hero at all. He’s only trying to save his own skin. So she zaps him.

Together, they put together a picture of a way the Resistance can be saved and embark on a mission to do just that.

In order to carry out this mission, they end up on the world of Canto Bight, where their perceptions of this new world compete. They both see the exact same set of data, but come to different conclusions. For Finn, this is a paradise of fun. For Rose, she sees the seedy underbelly, the people profiting off the misery of others. She does her best to illuminate this to Finn and he seems, at least, receptive.

Then they meet DJ, the character played by Benicio Del Toro. DJ represents a competing point of view that presses down on the decisions of the main characters. In the script, Rian Johnson set up these trios for all the main characters. For Poe, it’s Leia and Holdo. For Rey (who we’ll get to next) it’s Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren. For Finn, it’s Rose and DJ. Finn goes through the galaxy with his own personal biases and has Rose try to expose them, laying them bare and forcing him to pick a side. DJ works in the opposite direction. Though both Rose and DJ point to the unfairness in the world, they come to different prescriptions for that realization. For DJ, he thinks ambivalence, nihilism, and self-preservations is a more rational approach to a world that demands that sides be picked. This is already close to where Finn is at in the beginning of the film and it makes sense to him.

Over the course of the film’s climax, Finn finally picks a side, choosing to actually fight for something other than his own self-preservation and fear of the overwhelming might of the First Order. Unfortunately, he does so recklessly, trying to throw his life away for the cause, even when there would be no tangible benefit. Once more, Rose brings him back from that brink.

Every scene he’s in, watch how the events that have added up to make his character inform that theme from his point of view.

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Rey

Rey is, perhaps, the most important of the three main heroes and hers most clearly illustrates the theme we’re talking about.

Like Rose, Rey sees a hero in front of her and is shocked that they’re not what they expected them to be. Rose found Finn lacking. For Rey, she finds Luke Skywalker a defeated hero, living out the rest of his days waiting to die, taking the Jedi Order with him.

Then, she’s given a series of stories and visions that she needs to make sense of from her point of view.

The first is the Rashomon-sequence of stories she’s told about the night Luke Skywalker and Ben Solo had their galaxy-shattering falling out. Both Rey and the audience are given three different versions of the story and are left to wonder which reading of these events is the correct one. From Luke’s point of view, he was checking on his nephew’s welfare. From Ben’s point of view, his uncle set out to murder him. In the third iteration, a synthesis of the previous two, we’re left with shades of gray that Rey has to interpret.

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Rey is also given a vision of the future that she shares with Ben Solo and they’re both left to interpret that. In one of the best scenes in a film full of great scenes, Rey and Ben are in an elevator together, debating what their vision told them. For Rey, she saw that Kylo Ren would join forces with her and reject the dark. For Kylo Ren, he believed she would reject the light and join forces with him. The truth, free of the shadows of their own perception, was somewhere in the middle. Both would come together to temporarily join forces, but neither would join the other and they would remain at an impasse.

The theme plays out in other ways in that confrontation as well, where Snoke sees a vision of Kylo Ren smiting his true enemy in the same sort of vision that Rey and Kylo Ren shared. Again, fitting into the theme of perception and point of view, Snoke assumed that his apprentice smiting down his true enemy would be anyone but himself. He saw things from his own point of view and was killed by that.

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Kylo Ren

This wasn’t the only time that Kylo Ren’s point of view burned him in the film. His entire story and turn to the dark side is predicated on his perception and point of view. For Ben, he truly believes that his uncle arrived to kill him and was jealous of the power and darkness he represented. For his part, he was angry at the lies he’d always been told. This shades every decision Ben Solo/Kylo Ren makes through this film, but also forces us to look at his actions in the previous Star Wars installment as well. When you take everything he does from the knowledge that he thinks his uncle, and by extension, his whole family betrayed him, his actions begin to make a lot more sense. No villain thinks they’re a villain and Ben Solo has that same point of view.

It’s this perception of Luke Skywalker that shades his visions with Rey. It’s why he thinks she’ll join him. It’s why he thinks she’ll build a new order and “let the past die.”

Unfortunately, he’s not as quick to change his mind after receiving new information as Rey is. At the end of the film, he’s still stuck in the old ways with his old world view.

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Luke Skywalker

Luke also struggles with his perceptions and points of view through the course of the film.

As he stands over his nephew and looks into his heart and sees the vision of the future that destroys everything he loves, he’s falling into the same point of view trap that everyone else who sees a vision in this film falls into. “Your mistake was in thinking his choice was made,” Rey reminds him, and this realization stings Luke as much as everyone else who comes to know that they’ve been wrong.

But it was this vision and the actions he took and the reaction of his nephew that sends him to exile on the island Rey finds him on. This failure to recognize things from a “certain point of view” is what sends Luke Skywalker to the outer edges of the galaxy and in hiding. He believes he’s doing a right and noble thing in ending the Jedi. His perception of what they were and what they represented sent him to the island in the first place. He wanted no part in their hypocrisy. It took the wisdom of Master Yoda to come back to him and explain that it’s okay that the Jedi made mistakes, as long as those carrying on that legacy learn from them. “The greatest teacher, failure is,” Yoda tells him.

And that’s why Luke is able to come up with the most Jedi-like way to win the day once he realizes what failures he needs to learn from. And he uses a trick of point of view, the theme of the film, in order to it.

And that brings us to:

The Climax

All of these things, built together over the course of the movie, led to a climax that is surprising but inevitable. All of the perceptions and misperceptions stacked on top of each other led to a Resistance on the run, barely able to survive. The First Order, under the leadership of General Hux, was unable to see the Resistance for the threat it genuinely was. They mistook it for a helpless, cornered animal that they could eliminate at their leisure.

For a film built upon the words “from a certain point of view,” what better way is there than to end the conflict with a character that may or may not be there in the flesh, standing up to a character who is too enraged to see the truth?

Luke Skywalker finally appears at the battle, stopping it in his tracks as he steps out to face off against the First Order with nothing but his laser sword. This is a beautiful call back from earlier in the film, too, when he asks Rey about this possibility with incredulity. “You think what? I'm gonna walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order? What did you think was going to happen here?”

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Luke is also playing with perceptions with his appearance. He’s younger than we’ve seen him. The lightsaber he carries is one we know to have been destroyed. None of this matters to Kylo Ren, though: Luke is fulfilling every cliched view of the Jedi that Kylo has in his head.

And Luke appears more powerful than he’s ever been. A volley of shots from every walker in the First Order’s arsenal fails to kill him and he simply brushes the dust aside like it was nothing.

Then, when Kylo faces off with him personally, he doesn’t notice any of the signs the audience has been given that there’s something off about this version of Luke.

At the same time, we are able to see the members of the Resistance in the bunker, debating about what this means. Thanks to all of the learning about point of view he did throughout the course of the film, it’s Poe Dameron who realizes that Luke isn’t there to help them win the battle, but to stall to give them time to escape.

When Luke finally disappears and the prestige of the magic trick is revealed, the audience and each of the players in the film are left speechless. (Or in tears, depending on how strong your connection to Luke Skywalker is.)

The film builds scene after scene about the importance of perception and point of view, stacking them on top of each other until this climax. Each of the characters ends the movie more leery about what they perceive the truth to be or are more resolved to discover it on their own. The next time you watch it, pay close attention to how Rian Johnson plays with it in the script, but also how he plays with it in the visuals. Whether that’s Leia floating in space, leaving the audience to think she’s dead until we realize she’s able to save herself from this fate or Rey’s shifting view of Luke Skywalker as the film goes on. This theme is meant to play as much with the audience’s point of view as the characters in the film. And that makes it a truly remarkable piece of screenwriting.

There’s a lot to be learned there, and it’s worth a lot of study.

Watch it and think back to your screenplay. Ask yourself how you can make the theme more consequential in every scene? How can you force the audience to participate in the theme themselves? How can you give each character, both main and side character, a journey that takes them along the theme?

It’s difficult. I know it is. Writing to theme can be the most difficult thing a screenwriter does. But once you’ve nailed it down and can reformulate what you’re doing to accommodate it, your screenplay is going to be stronger for it. You might not even find out what that theme is until you’ve already got a draft of your work, but once you have it, it’s gold.

Work at it.

It will pay dividends. And studying Rian Johnson can help lead you there.

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