When Star Wars: The Last Jedi was released shortly before Christmas 2017 it soon became the most divisive entry in the long-running franchise, with the majority of critics praising the eighth instalment of the so-called Skywalker saga while many of the fans were furious at the treatment of several of its most beloved characters. It had been two years since the release of The Force Awakens, the movie which promised to continue the story that had initially been laid to rest three decades earlier with 1983’s Return of the Jedi and while the reboot had been little more than a paint-by-numbers reworking of the original 1977 classic, it had proved popular enough with audiences that its sequel would be highly-anticipated.
Yet The Last Jedi would divide the fan-base in a way that not even the reviled prequels had achieved when they were released over ten years earlier, with the majority of criticism from the devoted followers of the series being on the betrayal of the character of Luke Skywalker, the hopeful hero of the original trilogy who had now been reduced to a jaded and reclusive hermit, while the story arcs that The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams had created for stormtrooper-turned-resistance fighter Finn, the First Order’s ominous leader Snoke and even the parentage of heroine Rey seemingly abandoned in writer-director Rian Johnson efforts to subvert expectations.
Skywalker himself, fan favourite Mark Hamill, had repeatedly expressed frustration with the treatment of his character in The Last Jedi during early interviews to promote the movie while more recently other co-stars have also reiterated his concerns with the sequel’s handling of many of the cliffhangers left at the end of The Force Awakens. Abrams had initially remained diplomatic on his opinion on The Last Jedi but after replacing Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow as director of The Rise of Skywalker, the final chapter of the new trilogy, the screenplay was hastily rewritten to effectively undo many of the plot points that were created with The Last Jedi.
One of the most controversial decisions appears to have been the treatment of Rose Tico, a character created by Johnson who, along with Finn, would embark on a mission to find an elusive codebreaker who can help deactivate a tracking device that the First Order have used in order to hunt down the resistance. Heavily criticised by many fans as a pointless subplot created to preach to the audience about the evils of capitalism and slavery, much of the hostility levelled at the movie would centre on Tico and her naïve outlook on the universe, a wide-eyed optimism others have compared to Skywalker in 1977’s Star Wars. Fans would grow to despise the character even further when, during the climactic battle, she stops Finn from sacrificing himself and thus risking the lives of the few remaining resistance fighters.
As documented by the press, the actress who portrayed Tico, San Diego-born actress Kelly Marie Tran, was victimised on social media for what was reported as attacks of both sexism and racism. ‘A lot of Star Wars fans who are specifically Asian never had a character they could dress up like,’ Tran explained to Variety, ‘or they would and people would always call them ‘Asian Rey’ or ‘Asian fill-in-the-blank.’ I get very emotional when I see people who are able to identify with this character. That means a lot to me and I don’t think it will ever get old.’ As a result of the harassment the actress decided to remove herself from Instagram, prompting Johnson and many others from within the Star Wars community to voice their opinions on what would soon be referred to as toxic fandom.
With Tico not being a creation of Abrams and perhaps in response to the criticism levelled at the character, she is notably absent from The Rise of Skywalker, with barely any screen-time at all in favour of the three core heroes Rey, Fin and Poe embarking together on an adventure. While those fans who disliked the character will be pleased with this decision there are others who feel that not only is this an insult to both Tico and Tran but also poor storytelling by reducing the role of someone who played such an integral role in the previous movie. This could be considered the same kind of poor story-telling that many criticised The Last Jedi for; merely ignoring the events of the last instalment in order to appease the vision of the director.
This is, of course, largely rooted in racism and sexism
The most outspoken views against the treatment of Tico have come from the media, many of whom have expressed their disappointment that viewers have been denied the chance to see how her character would have developed in the closing instalment of the saga. ‘And yet there were no cries to make her more ‘useful’ with more screen time in The Rise of Skywalker and that same crowd is celebrating her near-removal from the final chapter,’ claimed an article published by Forbes. ‘This is, of course, largely rooted in racism and sexism. This is not implied, this is explicit, as Kelly Marie Tran was chased off social media due to unrelenting racist harassment after The Last Jedi.’
‘The sequel trilogy was always going to end with hope and love, the two traits that best defined Rose Tico,’ explained Nerdist. ‘But what did Rose do or say in The Rise of Skywalker when Finn attempted to sacrifice himself again? Nothing. In fact, she ran the other way. This isn’t retconning a plot point, it’s retconning the character. It makes no sense in the context of the trilogy, for the character, for her and Finn’s relationship, or for the overarching theme of the franchise. Forget bad storytelling, that’s a betrayal.’ Regarding the change in relationship between Tico and Finn since the last movie The Wrap added, ‘I can’t pretend to know exactly what the thought process was behind this decision, but there are not all that many reasons why they would push Rose out of frame like this. The big one, as we all know, is that a bunch of freakin’ nerds conducted a months-long harassment campaign that drove Kelly Marie Tran off social media after The Last Jedi came out.’
One comparison many have begun to make regarding Tico is with what of Jar Jar Binks, the Gungan introduced by creator George Lucas for the 1999 prequel The Phantom Menace, a character whose annoying penchant for comic relief would cause a considerable backlash from both the critics and fans, prompting actor Ahmed Best to reveal in 2018 that the hostility he had received had caused him to consider taking his own life. Lucas had opted to reduce the role of Binks in the two subsequent sequels, a decision many considered a reaction to the negativity that had surrounded his initial appearance. This, critics have now noted, has been echoed in the reduced screen-time that Tico has been given in The Rise of Skywalker.
While attending the world premiere of the new film Best gave his thoughts on the Star Wars fandom. ‘For lots of years Star Wars lost a bit of that child-like joy for me. Going through what I went through as Jar Jar was difficult because while you’re in it and while you’re shooting, it’s such a wonderful bubble,’ he explained. ‘And you’re doing so much creating and collaborating with brilliant minds…We’re all coming together and making this thing, and then we put it out there and you have no control of what it’s going to be when it goes out there, and everybody’s gaze is going to be different. The one thing about the Star Wars universe that no other universe has is, everyone takes it personally. Every individual who is a Star Wars fan, it’s their Star Wars. So it’s virtually impossible to make everybody happy.’
With Tico having been reduced from a little over ten minutes of screen-time in The Last Jedi to just over a minute in The Rise of Skywalker, co-writer Chris Terrio attempted to explain to reason in an interview with Awards Daily. ‘Well, first of all, J.J. and I adore Kelly Marie Tran,’ he stated. ‘One of the reasons that Rose has a few less scenes than we would like her to have has to do with the difficulty of using Carrie’s footage in the way we wanted to. We wanted Rose to be the anchor at the rebel base who was with Leia. We thought we couldn’t leave Leia at the base without any of the principals whom we love, so Leia and Rose were working together. As the process evolved, a few scenes we’d written with Rose and Leia turned out to not meet the standard of photorealism that we’d hoped for. Those scenes unfortunately fell out of the film. The last thing we were doing was deliberately trying to side-line Rose. We adore the character and we adore Kelly, so much so that we anchored her with our favourite person in this galaxy, General Leia.’