throne room

When The Last Jedi debuted in 2017, immediate praise met its throne room fight, in which previous adversaries Rey and Kylo Ren united to take down a swarm of opposing guards after dispatching the head of the First Order, Supreme Leader Snoke. In recent years, though, Youtubers, bloggers and Twitter users have targeted the sequence’s choreography at a macro level, noting continuity errors, alleging bad lightsaber form and so dismissing the entire scene as a result. But these are mere quibbles, typically found in any movie, including other Star Wars ones, and they do nothing to minimize or diminish what The Last Jedi’s most staggering moment is really getting at.

The throne room fight means something. Its ultimate goal isn’t perfect renditions of lightsaber combat, it’s not really interested in historically accurate swordsmanship, as some on the internet have called for, and so to write it off entirely on such grounds is a drastic missing of the point. Instead, the scene is showing us the significance of two opposing forces coming together in a cinematic franchise that has been largely devoid of such complexity. 

The Star Wars movies and the vast majority of the characters that populate them are usually drawn along strict black-and-white lines of good versus evil. This persisting clash is reflected in the costumes, designs, central conflicts and, most notably, the lightsaber colors of the saga’s characters. Red blades against blue and green ones - the eternal, cyclical battle of light pitted against the dark.

The throne room scene defies this tradition on purpose, and, in its aftermath and in order to make its point, destroys the most iconic lightsaber in the series. In place of the grand, lightsaber-on-lightsaber finale typically found in Star Wars films, here, for the first time (in the movies), we see a red blade and blue blade working in tandem, their wielders briefly united against a common foe. The importance and impact of this moment is underscored with a grandiose, slow-motion wide angle that begins the fight and Rey and Kylo back-to-back, signifying their allegiance against the crimson-clad Praetorian Guard, with synchronized red and blue blades thrashing and dominating the frame. The lavish production design present in the throne room, with its decadent curtains and the striking costumes of its combatants, also showcases the gravitas of this unlikely team-up. And yes, finally, the choreography brings it all together – stylized as an elegant, yet aggressive, ballroom dance between Rey and Kylo, the form of the fight brings merit to the excessive spinning and twirling throughout the visually stunning sequence and pays off a film’s worth of tension building amongst the two characters’ Force connection. It’s all at once reminiscent of classical Hollywood musical numbers with a set and cinematography evoking Kubrick and the closest thing to a sex scene Star Wars has ever done.  

And it should be stressed – in the seven movies prior to this one, red lightsabers have never been on the same side as a blue or green or purple one. It’s true that Luke and Vader find themselves aligned by the end of Return of the Jedi, but Vader’s allegiance and his position along the good-evil spectrum shift back and forth in two large, defining acts in the saga – his savior of Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith and then his destruction of Palpatine in Return. It’s not as if Vader is depicted walking a blurred line throughout the films, rather his label changes in specific, dramatic swings that are built up from outside actions – Luke coming into his life in Empire Strikes Back, Luke insisting that he still feels good in him in Return and of course, seeing the cruel torture of Luke at the literal, lightning-imbued hands of Palpatine in the same film, prompting Anakin Skywalker’s redemptive return to the light. And that’s exactly the difference, Anakin and Luke share an ultimate goal in destroying The Emperor in the final minutes of the original trilogy, the same cannot be said for Rey and Kylo, whose unity is born of a fleeting common enemy rather than a distinct shift in character dichotomy. Kylo does not simply become good in The Last Jedi, nor does Rey simply become evil. In the prequels and originals, Vader merely moves from one absolute to the other, while Rey and Kylo’s brief allegiance in the throne room is much grayer.   

The larger point is that the throne room scene and its team-up serves as the best illustration of The Last Jedi’s overall goal and as a microcosm of the film itself – a challenge to Star Wars movies and their traditional structure. 

The prequels hit many of the same beats and possessed many of the same tropes as the original trilogy. The Force Awakens was a near-carbon copy of A New Hope. Events, locations and dialogue repeat throughout the saga. The famous line from George Lucas is “it’s like poetry. It rhymes.” This notion can be both good and bad from a story point of view, but the point is Star Wars, over the years and the films, created trappings for itself by being so familiar, at no fault of its own, it should be said, the first six films produced over a span of 28 years being the singular story of Anakin Skywalker, after all. But the tropes, stereotypes and dichotomies came to be a part of the lore and echoed through the films and beyond - the Force manifesting itself most powerfully in the same family, the hot-headed smuggler with a heart of gold, a lightsaber duel serving as the climax, the good Rebellion versus the evil Empire, good Jedi versus evil Sith, blue lightsabers versus red ones.  

Every single one of these components is challenged in The Last Jedi. The conflicts and tropes of old are turned on their heads throughout the film. It is a deconstruction of Star Wars, and this is why the unlikely alliance in the throne room is so staggering. Because Star Wars, in its traditional black-and-white mindset, has previously taught us that such a grouping isn’t supposed to happen; that characters and endgames are attached solely to binary allegiances. Rey and Kylo’s uniquely synchronized brawl with the Praetorian Guard and its aftermath, on the other hand, shows us the limitless potential of these chains coming free. As the conflict ensues, the aforementioned, deep-red curtains strung around the room, in a nod to The Wizard of Oz, burn away.

Upon the fight’s conclusion, Kylo, in dramatic close-up, tells Rey, “it’s time to let old things die: Snoke, Skywalker, the Sith, the Jedi, the Rebels, let it all die.” This is an incredible moment with real weight behind it, because the whole overarching conflict of the Star Wars saga has up until now been defined by binary opposition. In the prequels, it was the good Republic vs. the evil Separatists, and, by extension, the good Jedi vs. the evil Sith. In the originals, it was the good Rebels vs. the evil Empire, and, again by extension, the good Jedi vs the evil Sith. The Force Awakens established this same dichotomy yet again with the good Resistance vs. the evil First Order and by extension, good Jedi vs. evil Sith. One became the other which became the next. Here, no more, a call for something new, something fresh, symbolized by the pair’s destruction of Anakin’s iconic lightsaber in a subsequent stand-off. Kylo also pushes Rey, the sequel trilogy’s main character who displays great power, to admit her parents were not Skywalkers nor Palpatines, but instead “nobodies,” shattering years and years of traditional monarchy around the Force’s greatest wielders (The Rise of Skywalker, of course, ruined this).  

The Last Jedi and the throne room fight are suggesting that the series doesn't have to be enslaved to the familiar. It’s not saying these traditions are bad, as many have derived and taken personal offense to; rather, it's asking us to consider the potential of the series if we release ourselves from the shackles of how we've come to culturally define the merits of Star Wars movies.

Of course, one misses out on all of this when holding a magnifying glass to the scene’s fight choreography and expertly pointing out that “this guard should have swung here!” or “Kylo reacted too slow there!” as some on Youtube have recently done in exhaustive, frame-by-frame analyses of the sequence. Who cares? It’s a movie, it’s founded on illusion, and many of the critics of the scene even mention that they enjoyed the fight the first time around, with these supposed crippling choreography mistakes only becoming apparent when they slowed the film down for a thorough examination. The point is if these flaws aren’t egregious enough to break the viewer’s suspension of disbelief in real time, do they really matter?  

Some have pointed to a moment in the fight when one of the guards falls down from a strike that should not have carried enough power to do so, others insist “why didn’t that guard just swing?” or “he was wide open right there!” And finally, many have noted that at one point, one of two blades wielded by a guard was digitally removed in order to preserve the believability of a brief exchange with Rey. All have used these moments as examples of why the entire scene is of poor quality and should be discounted entirely.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to point out flaws, and it’s not a bad thing to scrutinize these fight scenes at such an intensity and with such a practical lens. That’s understandable, fun and welcomed, however, to absolutely forsake the scene and all of its merits in picking apart classical Star Wars ingredients as a result is an overreaction that reeks of fans, who were upset about the film’s overall breaking from tradition, spotting a miniscule blemish and pronouncing the whole thing rotten.

There was no such scorn for the moment in which Mark Hamill’s foot clearly did not connect with the face of a pirate during a dramatic kick on a skiff at the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi. Fans instead excused it as a "Force Kick." And that was an error so apparent that it could be unquestionably observed in real time. Nor were there such dismissals when the same thing happened (twice) as Anakin and Obi-Wan faced off on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith. I don’t know of anybody who writes off A New Hope's Death Star scenes because a stormtrooper bumped his head into a doorway while jogging. Even the very legitimate criticism that the Empire's trained soldiers seemingly cannot aim their weapons in any kind of manner resembling effectiveness throughout the original trilogy is not taken seriously by the fandom, a portion of which has recently called out the The Last Jedi's Praetorian Guard for "telegraphing their moves" during the throne room fight.

And going further - what about Bane’s henchmen, who are falling down for no reason throughout street brawls in The Dark Knight Rises? Does anyone hate those scenes because of that? And did you know that if you look close enough you can spot plain-clothes crewmembers filling out the ranks of orcs and Uruk-hai in the Lord of the Rings trilogy? It goes on and on. Most movies in general possess small continuity or choreography errors, and while maintaining the illusion cinema relies upon is crucially important, there’s a big difference between a scene’s foundations breaking down due to logical inconsistencies and a few pulled punches, unnecessary spins or a disappearing dagger. 

p.cozz28@gmail.com

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