It’s not news that Star Wars has always been derivative. The first trilogy borrowed greedily from Flash Gordon and Japanese samurai movies, and set a precedent for future klepto-cinema. While The Last Jedi continues a similar tradition, it also follows another strange progression—the history of human warfare.
[Warning: Major spoilers ahead]
About two-thirds through the movie, when the First Order corners our heroes on the salt planet Crait, a pattern emerges through all the space opera chaos. Each battle, from the opening crawl to the final minutes, devolves into cruder combat at closer range, creating a reverse military timeline from World War II to the tactics of prehistory.
This isn't a new kind of cinematic trick. The journey up river in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now presents the history of Vietnam in reverse. But in The Last Jedi, the movie unfortunately botches some of the most rudimentary tenants of military theory that would make a World War II pilot or 13th century knight roll his eyes.
You Sunk My Spaceship
When the movie opens, we are in the midst of a desperate battle. An air raid begins, and a screen of fighters need to escort the bomber fleet. This has all the hallmarks of a World War II mission, where battleships could disrupt shipping and turn the tide of war. As the fighting raged, the danger aircraft posed to warships became increasingly evident. While airplanes carrying torpedoes became more lethal, all major powers in WWII unleashed conventional bombers on ships. The most epic aerial hunt may have been .
So the target is familiar, and so is the makeup of the strike package. The fighters are involved in what military pilots call SEAD, Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses. The art of SEAD emerged during World War II, with P-47 Thunderbolt fighters hitting defenses so the big, slow bombers could fly unmolested.
The biggest thing that makes this fight vintage World War II is the absence of missiles. There are a lot of things with engines, but no anti-ship or anti-aircraft missiles are used during the battle.
In the movie, a squadron of X-wings merrily blast the anti-spacecraft cannons so the absurdly slow bombers can creep to targets. The bombers and fighters are separate in design and function, clearly the advent of the fighter-bomber does not exist in a galaxy far, far away.
Those rebel alliance bombers are absurdly patterned off of World War II aircraft. There are racks of round bombs in the bomb bay of the spacecraft. But why would a space bomber carry all those gravity bomblets in zero gravity? And why are those bombers so slow, when it's easier to move mass around in space? And why have pilots at all when unmanned drones can perform suicide missions like this?
Enter the Age of Sail
After the opening clash, The Last Jedi enters another military paradigm, this time borrowing a strategic setup from the age of sail. It’s a grand chase that pits the imperial fleet against the fleeing rebels. You could even confuse it with the film Master and Commander.
During the age of sail, when large, masted ships ruled the waves, clashes often devolved into long chases like the one depicted in The Last Jedi. Fighting became reduced to math equations. The speed of the ships, over time, enabled both sides to know when an interception could be expected.
The trick was to hurt the other ship enough to slow it down and intercept it before the target reached a safe harbor or benefited from a shift in wind or weather.
This created a new kind of weapon, called . Mounted on the bow or stern of ships, these enabled the crews to take pot shots at each other during the chase. The sailors aimed cannonballs and links of chain at each other’s sails and rigging. A lucky shot could change the speed equation enough to change the chase’s outcome.
The Last Jedi’s chase sequence is very similar to one of these 1700s-style clashes. The two ships are lined up on the same heading, as if they are both catching the same angle of wind, and the chase ship is using a bow gun to lob projectiles at the fleeing rebel vessel. These unguided shots even curve, as if they were ballistic ordnance fired on earth.
Every attack is absorbed by the fleeing ship’s shields in a CGI blaze. The idea, then, is not a lucky shot that will disable an engine. The rebel ship seems worried about running out of fuel, a first in Star Wars movies, so the First Order’s strategy is to launch nuisance attacks on the shield that we must assume is draining power from the ship, forcing it to slow down and bringing the chase to a more prompt conclusion.
But the Rebels reach (somewhat) safe harbor regardless. Now, The First Order must employ another military tactic, one dredged from ever further back in human history.
The last big battle in The Last Jedi is basically a medieval siege. The centerpiece is a massive gate, a wall of metal that protects a rebel base. The First Order deploys an army to break the defenses, including a “battering ram cannon,” which is a miniaturization of Death Star tech.
Star Wars movies have a failing grade when it comes to portraying actual military battles. They botch orbital physics, high-tech military strategy, taking cover during a firefight, and using radar to detect incoming aircraft with stunning regularity.
But messing up how to use a wall? That’s a new low.
Walls are ancient military tech. Early cities in Mesopotamia, the world's oldest cities, had protective walls around them, an obstacle for invading armies. But the idea isn't just keeping invaders out, but to make the odds more even. Breaching a wall involves funneling attackers through a few breakthrough points, nullifying any strength in numbers the attackers have. This only works if your side is on the other side of the wall.
But in The Last Jedi, things go differently. The First Order has the rebels cornered in a mountain base, protected by an energy shield and a physical one—it even closes like an old castle portcullis. The energy shield guards it from orbital bombardment, but the massive wall seals off a natural cave system housing a rebel base. The bad guys come backing mechanized infantry with those dumb Star Wars walkers advancing from a distance, instead of landing right outside the gate. It’s the Lord of the Rings, absent the orcs, but even Helm's Deep is more believable than the final battle of The Last Jedi.
The reason it doesn't make sense is because the rebels set up trenches and four light artillery pieces outside the wall. So they're picked to pieces by heavy cannons of encroaching AT-M6s and TIE fighters sweep the trenches. Outside the wall is where the enemy’s vast numbers guarantee victory.
The rebel idea is to buy some time, but the smarter move would be bringing those pitifully few troops inside the base. Make the incoming troops fight hand-to-hand inside the cave, where the First Order’s heavy hardware has less impact and their numerical superiority is blunted.
One moment of military sanity returns when the rebels try to use junky vehicles to attack the army. In siege warfare, this is called Still, using them to defend and block the main gate would probably end in longer delays and higher enemy casualties.
The Prehistoric Duel
Star Wars pulls from a lot of sources, but its most iconic moments come from medieval tradition—duels. Duels is one of the most ancient ways of settling scores, and they usually doubled for judicial systems in ancient societies. They were ceremonial, like Viking that were contested on animal hides. By medieval times, the rules and decisions were formalized. Combatants had to “share the sun,” face each other so that the glare wasn’t in anyone’s eyes. All the way up to the 19th century, “gentlemen” were still killing each other in duels.
But The Last Jedi has a subtle spin, using one of the oldest kinds of duels in history known as “single combat.” Those occur literally in the space between armies, which stop fighting to set the stage for a duel. These sometimes carry real weight, fought instead of a wider costly battle. Other times, it was just to regroup forces, entertain troops, and (if you win) to bolster morale.
Single combat duels are some of the oldest military tactics we know. The smackdown between David and Goliath was a single combat duel, so were the major battles outside the gates of Troy and classic tales told in ancient Egypt. Watching Luke Skywalker square off against Kylo Ren under the gaze of Imperial Walkers invoked some of the deepest-rooted aspects of tribal human nature.
In the course of 153 minutes, Director Rian Johnson walks us through thousands of years of military tactics. At times he does so poorly—and maybe even unintentionally—but it shows that Star Wars isn't so sci-fi after all.
Joe Pappalardo is a frequent contributor to Seniorhelpline and author of the new book, .