When Star Wars The Last Jedi came out, I realized that Star Wars fans don’t understand Chekhov’s Gun.
I spent a lot of time on the Star Wars subreddit and the Youtube space following the release of the newest film. I personally loved the film. I though it told a brilliant story about dealing with failure, and how one can grow from one’s shortcomings. It told a mature, sophisticated story that, while flawed, effectively pushed the Galaxy far, far away in a unique and clever direction.
But fans were not happy about it.
Which isn’t surprising. Fandoms are seldom satisfied by any material offered their way, least of all a fandom that, over the decades of its existence, has fractured into a million pieces.
But one piece of criticism that particularly stunned me was when fans claimed that one of the reasons Star Wars failed was due to a misuse of the writing “law” known as Chekhov’s Gun. (And yes, spoilers from here.)
Chekhov’s Gun is a writing rule established by Anton Chekhov, who claimed that “If a gun is mounted on the wall over a fire place in act one, then that gun must be fired by act three.” Utility of story telling: all that is built up must pay off.
Many writers have taken Chekhov’s Gun as a concept, and run with it. Famous film director Edgar Wright, for example, incorporates the law so thoroughly into his scripts that lines of dialogue foreshadow events that will pay off before the credits roll. Watch Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz two or three times, and you might notice tons of build-up and pay-off in the very lines of dialogue.
But to say that it is a law that must be obeyed is stupid. The fact that Rian Johnson did not offer a satisfying pay-off to Anakin’s Lightsaber or Snoke (plot elements from the prior film) means precious little. Nor is it bad writing.
One of the core themes of the film is reality vs myth. Luke Skywalker becomes a mythic figure due to his actions during the original trilogy. Rey sees him as a messiah, but the reality is far more down-to-earth. Which makes sense. Just because Luke defeated his inner darkness once doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. Just because Luke fought Darth Vader and won doesn’t mean he’s now some sort of indestructible hero. Just because Luke’s a hero doesn’t mean every decision he makes is good.
Likewise, Snoke is presented to be some mythic big bad, but, in reality, he’s just some jerk in a bathrobe with Force Powers. He’s the next in line for the Emperor. A replacement who seeks to emulate Sidious’s legacy (and, ironically, fulfills it). He isn’t some mastermind or even ultimate evil. He’s just a jerk who gets sliced in two by a far more interesting, morally complex character.
On the other hand, Anakin and Luke’s old lightsaber is a far more literal Chekhov’s Gun. An Excalibur-esque weapon that calls to Rey, it represents some greater destiny for Rey. It calls for her, refuses Kylo Ren’s call, and, ultimately, indicates that Rey is destined for greatness in The Force Awakens. Come The Last Jedi, Luke tosses it aside and it ultimately ends up shattering. All that build-up as a great weapon, only for it to be tossed aside like any old tool. Irreverence for a legend.
Yes, these creative choices subvert Chekhov’s Gun. Luke’s departure, Anakin’s lightsaber, and Snoke were all built up as that gun over the fireplace in the first act of this trilogy, but, ultimately, they amounted to very little. Rather than being fired, these guns misfired.
The rule of Chekhov’s Gun was broken. And that’s great.
The Coen Brothers have spent their entire career subverting Chekhov’s Gun. Films like The Big Lebowski and Fargo introduce plot points, build them up, only to do nothing with them. The two films are regarded as modern classics. The trick to their success? Nothing is sacred. Nothing really matters. This irreverence for established norms and story telling allows the Coen Brothers to both satirize society and human nature, as well as the very nature of story telling itself.
Chekhov’s Gun is a useful device in story telling, both as a means to satisfy audiences with build-up and pay-off, and to throw an audience into uncertainty by not following it. Chekhov’s Gun is a rule, not a law. Rules can be broken.
Of course, inherently, breaking Chekhov’s Gun isn’t that big of a deal. It doesn’t mean anything. Star Wars fans are right to feel dissatisfied by the lack of pay-off for all these plot points, in part because that’s Rian Johnson’s agenda. His irreverence towards established lore is an artistic choice. It is designed to introduce uncertainty into a saga that is dangerously close to formulaic. George Lucas designed the original films in alignment with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. If the series is to remain relevant, it has to push the boundaries of storytelling. The rules exist, but, sometimes, need to be shattered to liven up a greater universe.
Breaking Chekhov’s Gun is precisely what the Galaxy Far, Far Away needs to remain strong in the years to come.