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The Most Breathtaking Moment in ‘The Last Jedi’ Is Also Its Greatest Threat to ‘Star Wars’ Lore

The frightening truth about Vice Admiral Holdo’s unprecedented tactic

Lucasfilm/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Both times that I’ve seen The Last Jedi, the same moment produced the most memorable audience response. It wasn’t Luke tricking Kylo Ren on Crait, Kylo killing Snoke, or Kylo and Rey drawing sabers back to back in Snoke’s throne room. It was Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) sacrificing herself to save the Resistance by jumping to hyperspace straight through Snoke’s flagship, thereby destroying Snoke’s flagship and fleet.

Visually, sonically, and emotionally, Holdo’s maneuver is an indelible moment. The knowledge of what she intends to do creeps up on us just as it dawns on members of the desperate Resistance and triumphant First Order, who first suspect that she’s either trying to save herself or to create a diversion to distract the First Order from its attack on the fleeing Resistance transports. Then we see understanding register on the faces of Commander Dameron and General Hux, and finally feel it reflected on ours: Oh my god, she’s going to jump.

For a fleeting instant, we hear nothing from the sound system or from any nearby spectators who are seeing the film for the first time: no breathing, no popcorn-sifting, no wrapper-wrinkling. Then we see Snoke’s B-2 bomber–shaped ship, the Supremacy, sliced into two by the passage of the now-vaporized Resistance cruiser, the Raddus. The Supremacy, its stricken smaller companions, and the Raddus’s remains hang there, suspended in a silent tableau of beautiful blue-and-red death. And at last, the score returns with a wallop, along with the actual, audible gasps and choked cries of the viewers doing double-takes at the audacity of what Holdo (and writer-director Rian Johnson) have done. Johnson lands the punch perfectly.

So perfectly, in fact, that much of the audience is left too punch-drunk to consider the implications. The Holdo maneuver is one of the most breathtaking moments in a film filled with striking camerawork. It’s also kind of a can of worms. Holdo’s maneuver is so surprising because we haven’t seen it before—partly because its success threatens to totally destabilize the way Star Wars space combat works. Strap in, because this is going to get nerdy.

Let me stipulate here that the Holdo scene’s emotional impact outweighs whatever story complications and subsequent retconning it causes. If you were one of those theatergoers gasping and screaming, don’t let my forthcoming Comic Book Guy–esque objection diminish the moment one bit. Let me also stipulate that this is Star Wars we’re talking about, a series in which nearly every occupied planet is perfectly habitable for humans, powerful wizards can read minds and deflect lasers, and—speaking of Holdo—ships can jump to hyperspace to get around the pesky, big-galaxy plot requirement for faster-than-light travel. This isn’t a setting that conforms to our understanding of physics and technology. That’s OK, though, because Star Wars takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We accept its strange rules, as we accept so many others in sci-fi and fantasy, as long as they stay reasonably consistent.

Johnson likes to bend and break rules, not only narratively—in his refreshing, if divisive, defiance of franchise conventions vis à vis character backstories—but also in terms of the concrete ways in which the Star Wars universe works. The Last Jedi features multiple previously unseen Force powers (such as Rey’s and Kylo’s long-distance Force-conferencing, Luke’s interstellar projection, and Yoda’s postmortem Force lightning rod), although Johnson has pointed out that previous films have also introduced new Force powers piecemeal. “If the story required it and if it felt like it stretches into new territory but doesn’t break the idea of what the Force can do, Pablo was down,” Johnson said, referring to Pablo Hidalgo, one of the Star Wars authorities in the Lucasfilm Story Group. Those new wrinkles are easy to swallow because the limits of Force use have never been clearly defined; given the Force feats we’ve seen, it’s plausible that powerful figures like Luke, Yoda, and Snoke could push the previous boundaries.

Nor is it a problem that the First Order debuts “hyperspace tracking” in this movie—the very innovation that puts Holdo in the hopeless position to do what she does. Before The Last Jedi, ships in hyperspace couldn’t be tracked. In The Last Jedi, they can, thanks to some secret technology that was first teased in Rogue One. But Johnson makes clear that this is new technology, and the suitably impressed (and demoralized) Resistance adjusts its tactics accordingly.

Holdo’s hyperspace ramming maneuver, though, takes onlookers by surprise only in the sense that they don’t expect her selflessness. As soon as Holdo turns toward the Supremacy, Hux understands the danger, and no one is shocked that the tactic works. Yet as far as I know, there’s no perfect precedent in Star Wars canon for what Holdo did. We’ve seen many ships make the jump to light speed, and we know what that looks like: The stars elongate into lines, which then become a blue, coruscating, wormhole-like tunnel. What we haven’t seen is what happens when a ship-sized object stands in the way.

We know that a ship entering hyperspace emits radiation and blasts anything in its wake; we saw that in The Force Awakens and even more clearly in a recent episode of Star Wars Rebels. You don’t want to be directly behind or adjacent to a ship as it jumps.

Based on what we knew before The Last Jedi, though, I would have assumed that because hyperspace is an alternate dimension that’s separate from “normal space,” a ship entering hyperspace wouldn’t collide with a normal-space object in front of it, as the Raddus does with the Supremacy. We did know that giant celestial objects in normal space project gravitational “mass shadows” that extend into hyperspace and interfere with flight; in Star Wars canon, ships called Interdictor cruisers project giant gravity wells that can pull ships out of hyperspace or prevent them from jumping. When Han warns Luke in A New Hope that “without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova, and that'd end your trip real quick, wouldn't it?,” he probably means that a star’s mass shadow could yank a ship out of hyperspace so suddenly and so close to its surface that destruction would be inevitable. Another canonical novel makes clear that hyperdrives have a safety feature that prevents them from functioning in close proximity to a gravity well, although that feature can be overridden. (Congratulations on completing the geekiest paragraph ever written at The Ringer.)

The Supremacy, while large, is far from the size of an astronomical object whose mass shadow would cross into hyperspace. (OK, this paragraph is off to a geeky start, too.) Yet the Supremacy still collides with the Raddus. If that hyperspace collision can happen, then there’s no reason to think that any other two ships couldn’t collide. And there the rules really break down.

A hyperspace collision, The Last Jedi seems to tell us, can’t be avoided; unlike a collision at sub-light speed, it’s essentially instantaneous. And based on the carnage the Raddus wrought, the impact is extremely powerful and impossible to prevent. Any sufficiently large craft could easily destroy any ship or ships of its choice. This would be a battle-ending—hell, a war-ending—weapon. And now we know that it’s fully operational.

There’s an active discussion thread in a Star Wars roleplaying game Google Group (think Dungeons & Dragons, but with Star Wars) in which several devotees are lamenting how the Holdo precedent might ruin the game. “It just breaks so much about the Star Wars universe we already know about!” the original poster writes. Another responds, “If this was [a] possible technique it would have changed the entire tactical doctrine of naval warfare in the SW universe.” The ramifications, of course, are the same for future movies. The Holdo maneuver is a little like the walker-guts gambit on The Walking Dead; the first time we saw characters slather themselves in zombie intestines and lurch through a horde undetected, it was thrilling, but every subsequent time that a character has faced a similar threat and hasn’t done that, we’ve wondered why. Now that we’ve witnessed hyperspace ramming in action, it won’t make any sense if it’s absent from Episode IX.

Let’s try to explain this thorny issue away. For one thing, the maneuver, as shown, requires Holdo to sacrifice herself, a significant disincentive. But in Star Wars lore, hyperspace travel has existed for millennia. Are we supposed to believe that this idea didn’t occur to anyone else in those ages, or that no one else had the nerve? Given that multiple Resistance members sacrifice themselves to take out enemy ships in The Last Jedi alone (not counting Finn, who comes close), that’s impossible to believe. Hyperspace ramming is an ideal guerilla or terrorist tactic—and, unfortunately, one with plenty of conceptual precedents on Earth.

More to the point, though, this didn’t have to be a suicide run. Hyperspace jumps are plotted by computers, and droid ships are already a Star Wars staple. There’s no reason navies couldn’t construct unmanned ships to take on this task. And while ships like the Raddus are costly, an unmanned vessel the same size that exists only to serve as a relativistic battering ram wouldn’t necessarily need to be. As my colleague Jason Concepcion responded when I texted him about the Holdo problem, “Why not just stockpile old shitty ships and have droids light-speed them at Star Destroyers?” Why not, indeed. That’s the catch to the coolest shot in The Last Jedi: If you think about it too much, every other space battle in Star Wars becomes vulnerable to a “Why didn’t they?” or “Why don’t they?”

For the past couple of days, I’ve combed forums, traded emails and DMs, and conducted hour-long instant-message debates (sorry, Michael Baumann) in my quest to square the Holdo maneuver with what we know about Star Wars. So far, I’ve failed.

Is it possible that, despite what the movie made it look like, the Raddus didn’t jump through the Supremacy, but reverted to normal space inside it or so close to it that it could have caused that damage? Sure; there’s even an allusion to the latter phenomenon in the canonical novel Tarkin, which was published in 2014.

Whether the Raddus jumped through the Supremacy or merely into or around it, though, the attack worked just as well. And while one theory on Reddit proposes that the Raddus was at just the right distance to be accelerating toward hyperspace when it reached the Supremacy, rather than already in hyperspace, that’s not how Star Wars canon has suggested that entering hyperspace works. The normal-space distance that a ship appears to cover as those star-lines elongate is only an illusion, which the books call “pseudomotion.”

It’s possible that the Holdo tactic isn’t more common because it’s so tough to pull off, but if so, it’s hard to see why; the movie makes it look easy. In Holdo’s case, one person programmed the jump without premeditation in a short span of time, so it doesn’t appear as if aiming would be a big problem. (For the reasons Han mentioned, hyperdrives have to be accurate.) The more one studies this squabble—perhaps the most important facing Star Wars scholars in our time—the more unavoidable the conclusion that the Holdo maneuver, as one Stack Exchange commenter wrote, is a “plot hole the size of a Mega-class Star Dreadnought.”

Thus far, Lucasfilm has stayed silent. An email to a Lucasfilm rep, and a tweet to Hidalgo and another Story Group member, who often answer canon questions on Twitter, received no response. Do they realize that Star Wars is ruined until they retcon this weakness away? How deep does the cover-up go? WHAT IS LUCASFILM HIDING?

Until the stewards of Star Wars lore weigh in, only two theories I’ve heard will sustain me. The first, advanced by another Reddit user, is that the Raddus actually doesn’t destroy the Supremacy; instead, it goes sailing off into hyperspace, and the splitting of the ship and surrounding debris damage is the result of the lightsaber-splitting Force face-off between Kylo and Rey (which suspiciously climaxes off-screen). It’s an elegant theory, although it doesn’t explain why Holdo, Hux, and others think the hyperspace ramming will work.

And the other alternative? What Holdo did is a war crime. Perhaps hyperspace ramming is so horrifically effective that it’s been banned by the Yavin Convention. What we thought was heroic was actually the equivalent of a chemical-weapons attack. That’s the best I can do.

Holdo’s last command isn’t The Last Jedi’s only potential plot hole. It’s not even the only one related to Holdo. Why does she have to stay on the ship in the first place? Why won’t she tell Poe about her plan for the transports? Why is fuel scarcity suddenly such a big plot point for the first time in a Star Wars movie? Why doesn’t the First Order send out its starfighters, or make a micro-jump through hyperspace to get ahead of the Raddus rather than tailing it for hours? These are all worthy matters of Star Wars minutiae for fans to chew over on an idle day, but none of them threatens the whole of Star Wars storytelling the way Holdo’s dying act does.

Johnson, mostly to his credit, never lets blind adherence to the past obstruct a good story. Time after time, he shakes up the franchise’s formula and makes Star Wars stronger for it. And time after time, he bends the world to his will; if he wants Rey and Kylo to talk without being face to face physically, he’s going to find a Force power that makes that possible. But in dreaming up his movie’s signature shot, he flies in the face of decades of Star Wars (and sci-fi) tradition, disabling a failsafe that his predecessors presumably preserved for a reason. It took a previously impossible plot point to save the Resistance from an inescapable plight; it might take another to pave over the hole that Holdo’s death left.