Lightspeed Skipping and the Rule of Cool

Or: Another nerd yelling “You can’t do that in Star Wars!”

In J.J. Abrams’ latest nostalgia injection The Skywalker Rises: A Star Wars Story, he introduces a new method of transportation to the Star Wars Cinematic Universe: “lightspeed skipping.”

Han Solo once explained that hyperspace travel is no joke, that “without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova”; but apparently he just wasn’t as good a pilot as Poe Dameron, who can no-scope a hyperspace jump just by peeking out of the cockpit to check for any stars or supernovas that look like they’re too close.

Or maybe Han was that good, because at some point his one-time protegé Rey learned about “lightspeed skipping” — something we’ve never heard about before, and never hear about again — enough tell Poe “the Falcon can’t do that,” just so he can shrug because he just did it anyway.

A lot of people are out there writing about a lot of problems with this movie. The “how is Palpatine alive” question. The Rey-Palpatine Connection. The “Chewie in a second ship on the sandy knoll” Switcheroo. The Jannah-Lando Fandango. The Incredible Disappearing Rose Tico. But for me, lightspeed skipping was the canary in the spice mine that dropped me out of the movie super early.

This is a fun kids movie about space wizards and talking puppets and funny robots and laser swords, so maybe it shouldn’t be taken too seriously – but this just bothers me as a writer, because unlike some of the other issues, this one breaks the rules of the universe in a way that other choices don’t.

These are VERY serious movies.

This isn’t undoing things that have happened in the previous movies, like Rey suddenly being a Palpatine after learning the opposite in The Last Jedi. That’s fine, I guess. This isn’t introducing new things, like Force healing or Force projection or using the Force to fly through space. I’m totally okay with those. This is looking at the rules and saying “Well, actually, the rules shouldn’t work that way, because this way would allow for this cool sequence to kick off the flick.” That’s what bugs me.

Now strap on your cosplay and get out your d20s, because I’m going to talk about D&D for a second.

The Limitations of the “Rule of Cool”

In the tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons, there’s a trope called the “Rule of Cool.” While the game — which takes place almost wholly in the imaginations of the players — is bound by specific and extensive rules, sometimes something unexpected comes up.

Maybe a player says, “I want to slide down the bannister, leap to the chandelier, jump off while taking out my two swords and plunge them both through the two orcs below us.”

There is nothing in the rulebook about this specific action; at best, there’s a structure of rules outlining a combination of disparate rolls and actions the player could take, over a series of turns, to perform this feat.

But as soon as she proposes this, everyone around the table oohs and ahhs about how cool it would be, and the Dungeon Master sets aside the established rules and says, “Just make one roll and I’ll tell you if you do it.” And maybe, secretly, the DM lowers the difficulty threshold so the player is more likely to succeed. Because everybody wants to see her pull off this cool stunt!

That’s the Rule of Cool. You bend or ignore the existing rules so that everyone can experience the awesomeness.

Yep, this would tooootally work.

This happens all the time in movies. People with guns have aim that is uncannily precise. Cars perform feats that bend or break the laws of physics. Action heroes get shot, stabbed and thrown off of tall buildings only to be back in top fighting form in the next scene, without so much as a glance at the ER.

But the risk of the Rule of Cool is that if you use it too much, the rules become meaningless. Part of what makes D&D fun is the fact that it’s bound by rules; otherwise it’s a game of “the orc hits you” … “actually he doesn’t because I backflip out of the way” … “well actually he has an anti-backflip sword so he still hits you” … “ nuh-uh, because i used a spell that counteracts anti-backflip magic…” on and on and on.

The rules aren’t there in D&D to remove the fun or stop cool moments; they’re there because the risk of failure is what makes the game so compelling. And it’s the same with any story. If the heroes automatically succeed at every cool thing they try, there’s no tension and no stakes.

All Too Easy

I didn’t go into Rise of Skywalker expecting Rey, Poe, Finn or any of our heroes to die – that would be a very un-Disney, un-J.J., un-Star Wars thing to do (Rogue One notwithstanding). But I did expect there to be some tension; that the heroes might fail at something they try, or suffer some setback.

Instead, it feels like—at every moment—Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio applied the Rule of Cool, and simply let the heroes succeed. Lightspeed skipping? No problem, Poe’s a badass. Falling in a sand pit? Only for a few minutes, just gotta be nice to a snake. Chewie dies? J/K, here he is again. They can’t take a skimmer through the storm out to the Death Star? Two different main characters quickly make it, so easily that one of them does it off screen. Threepio has to sacrifice his memory for the team? Actually Artoo has the backup Threepio claimed he couldn’t possibly have.

Surprise: he’s fine.

This litany of moments where the heroes bend the rules of probability to overcome long or impossible odds eventually — for me — broke the universe. In the second half of the movie, I felt absolutely zero tension. The heroic moment where the Resistance’s new fleet shows up didn’t move me in the slightest, even with John Williams’ theme playing in the background, because of course the good guys were going to coast through the final battle. The good guys hadn’t faced a single real challenge for the last 2 hours.

You could chalk this up to fan service; maybe the Rise team thought fans wanted to see the heroes have cool, effortless wins at every turn, so they built the script around it. But that doesn’t feel like Star Wars to me.

Not-so-phantom Menaces

In Star Wars, the heroes bumbled their way through the entire movie.

Luke gets his ass kicked by Tusken Raiders. He gets zapped by the lightsaber training droid. Leia fails to talk Tarkin out of destroying Alderaan. The Falcon gets captured by the Death Star, and they spend a huge chunk of the movie stuck there. Han fails to talk his way out of the detention block, then has to run from a hangar bay full of Stormtroopers. Obi-Wan dies. Nearly every Red Squadron pilot gets shot down.

So when Vader locks onto Luke’s X-Wing, maybe it doesn’t feel like he’s about to die, but it does feel like something bad might happen.

In Rise, everything we’ve been told is hard is actually super-easy. So when the battle to save the galaxy from the Final Order at the end kicks into gear, why would the impossible odds seem impossible at all?

Evening the Odds

Like good Rebel Scum, I don’t really want the Empire (or the First Order, or the Final Order) to win. I’m not saying The Rise of Skywalker would have been better if Rey lost an arm, or if Chewie had actually died, or if the Resistance gave in and learned to love Big Emperor.

Of course the Avengers are going to win at the end of Avengers; of course James Bond is going to win at the end of a Bond film; of course the plucky underdog team is going to win at the end of a sports movie.

But I think if Rise had focused a little more on character instead of getting to the next big moment, and a little more on giving our heroes setbacks instead of easy victories — made them feel like underdogs—it would have made for a much more satisfying conclusion.

Just as a for instance – What if Poe’s lightspeed skipping had left him and Finn stranded in deep space, à la Tony and Nebula at the start of Avengers: Endgame? Trap them in the Falcon with Chewie, desperately trying to make repairs, wondering if their message made it through to the Resistance. Poe stuck because he didn’t learn his lesson from Holdo to be less of an arrogant prick, forced to reckon with the fact that he might die because of that and not in a glorious space battle. Maybe some nice scenes where Finn tells Poe what it was like to be in the First Order, and Chewie tells them about being enslaved by the Empire, and they agree that it was all worth it to stop the Empire. Then they decide to make one last lightspeed skip, knowing it might tear the ship apart. Ready to die if it doesn’t work. A possible sendoff for the Falcon. Spend some time with them, basically, and put them in a tough situation.

Or what about Rey and Kylo’s fight on the destroyed Death Star? Two things I really didn’t like about this: I never felt Rey was in danger (she already beat Ren in duel two movies ago), and Finn is totally wasted — he and Jannah made the harrowing journey across the stormy ocean to simply yell “REEEEYYY!” in the rain. What if Kylo decided to stop fucking around and brought the Knights of Ren with him? Now he has Rey outmatched, and she’s fighting for her life. And then when Finn and Jannah show up, they start hurling blaster fire at Kylo. In the storm, Kylo is bouncing blaster bolts away while fighting Rey, and a Knight leaps off to face Finn and Jannah. Rey is outnumbered. Finn and Jannah are overpowered. Finn is fighting to save his friend Rey’s life. Rey is fighting to save her friend Finn’s life. And there’s actual difficulty and stakes for the characters. (And the Knights of Ren do something other than stand in formation like a tour poster for an intergalactic boy band.)

I know these two ideas both add runtime and story complications to an already packed film, and simply adding more bad guys can be a cheap way to up the stakes. (Then again, I think you could lose the Burning Man desert festival planet and Babu Frick’s dystopian gulag planet and still be mostly fine.)

But those principles: giving characters a setback that slows them down for character moments (remember being trapped in the asteroid worm in Empire?), and giving them superior enemies to actually test their skills (remember using busted-ass speeders against shiny new walkers in The Last Jedi?) would provide some killer moments without throwing the rules of the filmic universe out the space-window.

Character. Stakes. Those are the things that I love about the original trilogy, and they’ll keep me coming back to those movies more than a highlight reel of cool moments any day.

Writer, mostly.

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