Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Exploring the Film’s Chase Structure
Where does Star Wars: The Last Jedi fall in comparison to science fiction's recent chase stories?
This Star Wars article contains spoilers for The Last Jedi, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the end of Battlestar Galactica.
Many of science fiction’s best stories—from Battlestar Galactica to Mad Max: Fury Road—are structured around a chase. There’s nothing that lends a story a sense of urgency like the knowledge that, if you don’t move and move fast, you will die.
The Last Jedi is unique among the films of the Star Wars universe in that it is set around a chase sequence. Like the setup of Battlestar Galactica‘s “33,” which centered the launch of the TV show around the Cylon’s tireless chase of the rebel human fleet, The Last Jedi‘s main plot thrust comes from the First Order’s chase of the Resistance fleet. It makes for a deceivingly simple setup with a clear goal and immediate stakes anyone can understand.
From the very beginning of cinema, filmmakers have been using the chase as a structure in their on-screen stories. The very first chase film (and, arguably, the first “action” film) came in 1901, with British silent film Stop Thief!, the story of a tramp who is chased by a butcher after stealing a piece of meat. While the technological capabilities and storytelling ambitions of cinema have evolved significantly since that one-minute film, the structure of the chase film is much the same: one person or group chases another person or group, with a sense of consequence should the cat catch the mouse.
While Stop Thief!‘s sympathies arguably lie with the chaser (aka the butcher), most modern chase films give the point-of-view and underdog status to the ones being chased. Take 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, which sees Furiosa and The Wives setting off across the desert to escape the tyranny and misogyny of Immortan Joe’s rule. Like The Last Jedi, the entire film is more or less an escape from patriarchy, led by women.
The Last Jedi even gives us a Furiosa-type character in Finn, someone who was taken as a child and forced to perpertrate violence for an imperialistic, power-hungry force led by one man, only to rebel. Unlike Fury Road, Finn’s character is not as active a part of the main story in The Last Jedi. While his role is important, as is his friendship with Rose, I would have liked to see the film delve further into the complexities of a stormtrooper who defected.
Instead, much of Finn’s story—and Rose’s too, for that matter—is used to support Poe’s character arc. Sure, when Rose stops Finn from going on a suicidal run in an attempt to stop the First Order’s battering ram cannon, it seems like something her character might do. After all, she has already lost at least one character she cares about in the space of this film. However, Finn’s decision to fly into the laser cannon seems less about his character and more about giving Poe’s character a chance to learn from his mistakes and become a better leader.
While Finn and Rose’s storyline is vitally important in terms of representation, it is less important when it comes to the plot of the film, highlighting one of the narrative weaknesses of the chase film: sustaining the urgency of the chase. In order for a chase film or episode to work, it is vital that the stakes remain immediate, which can be hard to do—especially when, as is the case with The Last Jedi, a film is juggling multiple storylines.
While, in some ways, the narrative balance in The Last Jedi seems similar to the breakdown in The Empire Strikes Back, the earlier film is a more expanded, less urgent version of a chase film. Because of this, the shifts between Luke’s training with Yoda on Dagobah and Darth Vader’s pursuit of the Millenium Falcon don’t undermine the urgency (or non-urgency) of one another in the same way the storylines in The Last Jedi do at times.
One of the most contrived parts of The Last Jedi comes in Finn and Rose’s mission to Canto Bight. While Poe explains its necessity as part of a reckless plan that could save the Resistance, the fleet, logistically, only has so much time and fuel left—18 hours, to be exact. Sending Finn and Rose off on a side mission undermines the immediacy of the chase’s stakes, necessitating that it become two ships slowly chasing each other across one star system.
The same is true, though less so, for Rey and Luke’s storyline, which is cut to seem like it takes place in the same time period as the Leia/Holdo/Poe action, but proceeds along at a much more leisurely pace. Sure, given their limited communication capability, Rey is unaware of just how pressing the Resistance’s need is, but the events on Ahch-To take place over the course of a few days, versus the Resistance and Rose/Finn’s more compact timeline. In general, the more abstract, emotion-driven stakes of the Ahch-To sequences are much less immediate than the film’s main plot, leading to some narrative dissonance.
One of the reasons why Battlestar Galactica‘s “33” is so brilliantly tense is because it keeps the point-of-view so tight on the human fleet. The basic premise is remarkably similar to The Last Jedi: the Cylons have found a way to track the Galactica and its civilian fleet through faster-than-light jumps. Following every jump, the Cylons show up 33 minutes later, keeping the fleet in a near-constant state of danger.
While “33” does have a subplot, it follows a human survivor of the Galactica trying to flee Cylon-occupied Caprica. Like the fleet in space, he is on the run from the Cylons, too. The storylines match up both thematically and temporally, and the sense of urgency is more or less consistent in both. That being said, I’m not sure how writer-director Rian Johnson could have done anything differently and kept all of the disparate, yet valuable storylines of The Last Jedi.
As we see in everything from Stop Thief! to the more modern examples highlighted in this article, the cat has to catch up with the mouse in some way—we all must eventually face the things we’re running from. Interestingly, in the cases of Battlestar Galactica, Fury Road, and The Last Jedi, the moment of capture is often reinforced by the failure of a perceived safe haven. In Battlestar, the fleet arrives on Earth after years of running from the Cylons only to discover it has suffered a nuclear apocalypse and is uninhabitable. In Fury Road, “the green place” no longer exists—at least not in any literal way. In The Last Jedi, Crait is far from the safe haven the Resistance hoped it would be and found it to be in the past.
In this context, we see that the chase film isn’t just about running away from something; it’s often about running toward something else. If our modern interpretations of the chase film tell us anything, it’s that the heroes can’t go back to a perceived safety. If it was ever real, it no longer exists. The world has moved on and so must they. These safe havens served a role long past their functions as hideaways; they gave these characters hope when they needed it most. Now, the heroes must all find a new spark of hope to run toward. They must light the spark themselves.