The biggest plot hole in Star Wars... isn't a plot hole

So I finally saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I have in fact seen it twice in the last four months. And my reaction is…

 

…eh.

I mean, it wasn’t bad or anything. It was a perfectly serviceable sci-fi action film. It had some pretty good moments, the fighter scenes were a lot of fun and felt the most like Star Wars than any other element in the movie, and the story moved along well enough. But I don’t think it’s a classic or anything. The ending was kind of sloppy (possibly due to all the reshoots), the characters weren’t much to write home about (with a few exceptions), a few iconic Star Wars elements were shoehorned in for no other reason than to have them in there (I’m looking at you, Darth Vader), and the creepy CGI cartoons of Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing were just unnerving. In the end, it was an enjoyable enough time, but nothing special.

However, there was an element of the film that really bothered me, and it’s not really the film’s fault.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to avoid fandom conversations. So I usually miss things that turn out to be widely held opinions or ideas. I re-encountered one after I saw Rogue One, and I felt my inner snob coming back out with a vengeance.

I always thought that the idea of a movie about getting the Death Star plans was silly. Will the Bothans get their own movie next? Will we get a film about Han Solo encountering the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell? To me, how the plans were obtained was explained in the title crawl of the first movie, and that’s all I needed. However, apparently fandom wanted another question answered, and I heard the same thing from many different corners: “Well, it did show us how the Death Star exhaust port got there.”

Apparently, there’s a large body of Star Wars fans who thought the Death Star’s exhaust port was a narrative flaw, and a lot of people are glad that someone finally explained that plot hole. Of course, subjectivity is a thing, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, but there’s one small problem with the notion that Rogue One explains away the greatest plot hole in Star Wars history: It isn’t a plot hole.

Now before you skip to the comments to tar and feather me, understand that if you accept the Rogue One explanation of how the exhaust port got there (it was an intentional flaw slipped in by a designer with rebel sympathies) then fine, that’s your call. But I stand by my statement, which is that the existence of the Death Star’s exhaust port in the original Star Wars is not a plot hole. I have three points here, each of which leads into the next, so I’ll start with the biggest elephant in the room: the definition of a plot hole.

Plot Hole vs. Plot Contrivance

First of all, the term “plot hole” is severely misused. It’s tossed around by hacky, wannabe critics on the internet (I know, glass houses, shut up) to describe anything the reviewer didn’t like about the movie. I’m sure you’ve seen these clickbait bits of nonsense listing the “40 Plot Holes in The Force Awakens” even though the movie came out a week before the article was posted.

So what is a plot hole? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a plot hole is “An inconsistency in the narrative or character development of a book, film, television programme, etc.” Essentially, it’s when something that’s basically impossible happens in the narrative. It’s when a character knows information that nobody could have told them, or a character has an ability that solves a problem that the story never established that character having.

If anything, the Death Star exhaust port is a plot contrivance. What’s the difference? Think back to the first Pirates of the Caribbean.

Jack Sparrow about sums it up. The difference between a plot hole and a plot contrivance is one of the impossible verses the improbable. A plot hole is something that happens in the narrative that’s impossible, or at least, the story never establishes as being possible. A contrivance is when something happens that’s possible but unlikely, and only happens because the author needed it to happen. Bruce Wayne showing up in Gotham City after having his back broken and being marooned in Asia is a plot hole. A plot contrivance is when Chris Pine’s Kirk is marooned on a planetoid where Old Spock (who can explain everything) just happens to have also been stranded. And they also happen to be within walking distance of Scotty, who just happens to know how to get them back to the Enterprise.

The Death Star having a small flaw that can lead to its destruction is, if anything, a plot contrivance. Given that this is a universe where you need a computer to calculate your path for light speed or find your target, it’s not unbelievable that a weapon of amazing destructive energy would need a place to spew out its exhaust. Your mileage may vary over whether the Empire wouldn’t notice such a flaw (I’m getting to that in a moment), but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

So the exhaust port is not a plot hole. If anything, it’s a plot contrivance. But is it really that contrived? Not really, considering that…

Every Weapons System Has a Flaw

One of the things I loved about the original Star Wars Trilogy was its grit. It wasn’t a hard sci-fi piece like Isaac Asimov used to do, and it wasn’t rooted in the science of space travel like Star Trek, but there was always a certain realism to it. Even with the Force and all that, the universe felt lived in and tangible. The vehicles and ships had capabilities and limits to what they could do.

People forget that George Lucas based a lot of Star Wars on history. The Empire, even down to the design of the uniforms, was influenced by the Nazis. The space fights with X-Wings and TIE Fighters were influenced by World War II movies (both documentary and fictional) about the air war. The struggle of an ill-equipped rebel force that nevertheless manages to hang on and defeat a much larger enemy has happened throughout history.

If one knows their history—and as a history major, I know a little—they would know that every major piece of weaponry has some kind of shortcoming. If you wonder why the navy has so many ships besides aircraft carriers, it’s because carriers don’t have much in the way of armaments. The have no room, with all the planes they transport. So other ships, which can’t carry planes, are needed to escort the carriers and protect them. If you get into this sort of stuff, you’ll find various hilarious stories of seemingly bad-ass weapons having terrible flaws that didn’t become apparent before it was too late. Ships so large, they sank on their first voyage. Artillery weapons so massive that the gun destroyed itself the moment it was fired. Mankind’s hubris when it comes to building weapons can be breathtaking.

As mentioned before, the idea that a giant, planet-sized, light speed-capable space station with enough destructive power to destroy an entire planet at its core would need an exhaust port is completely within the realm of possibility, considering the universe. Heck, you could say the contrivance is that the exhaust port is so small. It’s only two meters wide!

Your car has an exhaust port; it’s called a tailpipe. Ships have smokestacks. Hell, the Millennium Falcon and X-Wings appear to have exhaust, judging by the glowing ports at the rear of their designs. So why wouldn’t the Death Star have an exhaust port? You may think it’s contrived, but it seems completely in keeping with the Star Wars universe as we know it.

Or maybe you believe the idea that this flaw would go unnoticed is the contrivance? I hate to tell you that you’re still wrong, because of…

The Theme of Star Wars

Now for the boring part where I talk about the movie’s theme. For those of you who don’t know, theme is what a story is about, in terms of what it says about life or humanity. It’s basically what the author or creator is trying to say. Star Trek is generally about technological advances making it possible for humanity to overcome its differences. Godzilla is about man’s self-destructive power and how nature is always more powerful. You get the idea.

There are many themes in Star Wars, but the one I’ll focus on here is the theme of arrogance and beating the odds. If one watches the first film, it’s hammered home many times that the Empire falls because of their overweening arrogance. It’s telegraphed from the very first shot, with a large Star Destroyer looming over a tiny, fleeing rebel spaceship. The AT-AT walkers aren’t just there because they’re a bad-ass design; they’re symbolic in that, even without the Death Star, the Empire is still bigger, stronger, and better armed than the rebels.

The overarching theme of the original trilogy is that the Empire loses because of their arrogant belief in their technological and material superiority. And the rebels win because they fight on despite their disadvantages, while taking huge risks. Even the Ewoks are symbolic of this theme. (A lot of people don’t like the Ewoks. I’m kind of on the fence about them. I think Wookiees, which was the original idea for Return of the Jedi, would have been better. But the Ewoks are cute. As the father of a five-year-old, cute can go a long way with me.) The Ewoks were a bunch of primitive natives. The Empire lost to them because they didn’t count on having to fight them.

The exhaust port is the device in the story that reveals this theme. The idea that the exhaust port is a result of a twenty-year plan to slip it in there by a rebel agent contradicts the theme. The exhaust port was there and the Empire didn’t notice it because they were too enamored with the weapon’s destructive capability to care about such a small detail. Remember these quotes from the movie?

“Evacuate?! In our moment of triumph?!? I think you overestimate their chances.”

—Grand Moff Tarkin

“It appears that the Empire does not believe a small one man fighter to be any threat. Otherwise, they’d have a tighter defense.”

—General Jan Dodanna

“Any attack made by the rebels against this station would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they’ve obtained. This station is now the ultimate power in the universe. I suggest we use it.”

—Admiral Motti

It’s reiterated time and again throughout the movie that the Empire is completely confident in its ability to crush the rebels. And look at that last quote. What is Vader’s response to that?

“Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

And how does Luke destroy the Death Star? He shuts off his technology, and his targeting computer, and uses the Force.

That’s the theme of Star Wars right there. It’s not about the weapon or weapons; it’s about the people using them, and their willingness to fight when the odds are against them.

You could argue that Rogue One is in keeping with that. But the idea that the exhaust port was not a design flaw, but an intentional act of sabotage, undermines the point of the original film. Suddenly, the Empire are a bunch of idiots who didn’t think the engineer working on the Death Star’s construction under duress after his wife was killed by Imperial agents would think of sabotage. And the rebels are no longer simply taking advantage of the Empire’s arrogance. The exhaust port is no longer a symbol of the Empire’s overconfidence, but a cheat code that was there all along.

Once again, if you needed to know why the exhaust port was there, I’m glad you got your answer, but I’ve never needed that explained to me. Alfred Hitchcock coined the term “MacGuffin” to describe an object that is, in a story, pursued by all principle parties. Hitchcock even went as far as to say that what the MacGuffin is and what it does is irrelevant, because all that matters is that everyone wants it and that’s what drives the story.

I always saw the exhaust port like that. Just as I don’t care how Han Solo wound up in debt to Jabba, the fact that he’s in debt is enough for me. That’s how I felt about the Death Star exhaust port. How it got there is unimportant; the fact that it’s there is all that matters. It’s simply the means to an end.

I think this is probably the lamest evolution of Star Wars fandom I’ve witnessed in recent years. Star Wars is a story about people and struggle and comradery. It has wonderful characters that stand the test of time. But all we want to talk about is where the hole that blew up the Death Star came from. The Star Wars Expanded Universe could be pretty hit or miss. It was downright lame at times. But in its 38 years of existence, a run that saw it explain a bunch of things that didn’t need explaining and providing backstory nobody asked for, it still never wasted time explaining how the exhaust port on the Death Star came to be. Why do we need that now? (No, I haven’t gone through the entire EU. So I may be wrong about this. If I am, feel free to tell me in the comments as obnoxiously as possible.)

I can only imagine what things are explained in the Han Solo movie coming out. Where he got the vest? Why he slings his blaster low? Why Chewbacca wears that sash?

I should stop. It’ll only encourage the bastards.

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  • Jason Brainerd

    Good article. It’s always interesting to hear other views when they are written coherently.

    For me in all these past 30+ years of having watched A New Hope many many times the thought of “How did they miss that exhaust port in the design stage?” never crossed my mind. It was just there. Rogue One explaining that it was put in there on purpose didn’t really bother me. I merely thought “huh, well neat.”. I felt neither anger nor relief.

    I enjoyed Rogue One as a interesting sci-fi movie that happened to take place in the Star Wars universe. The Vader scene at the end while definitely cool did feel very tacked on and unnecessary. But it was pretty dang cool. 🙂

  • I never thought the exhaust port was a plot contrivance. It’s stated outright that the Death Star’s built-in defenses are meant to work against capital ship, not fighters. That’s why the X-wings were able to fly through the shields in the first place. That said, the exhaust ports (I assume there were many) were difficult for fighters to reach; they were small; they were surrounded by guns; and they had energy shields over them to prevent lasers from getting in. They couldn’t be particle-shielded because that would prevent the exhaust from getting out! It took a pilot with actual magic powers to exploit the weakness.

    If anything is a plot contrivance, it’s the meager number of TIE fighters sent after the X-wings. But that comes back to the theme of arrogance. It took Darth Vader personally leading the attack for Tarkin to even bother.

    • PhysUnknown

      I also always thought there were multiple exhaust ports, which is why they could be so small.

  • Ørjan Hoem

    Maybe the people that claim that the exhaust port is a plot hole meant something else.
    1. It’s part of the plot.
    2. It’s a hole.
    Hence, it’s a plot hole. QED.

  • Kenneth Morgan

    Well, back in the 70’s, before “Empire Strikes Back” came along, there were three Han Solo books, set before the original movie. They were written by Brian Daley, and they provided a few explanations about Han and Chewie. But they were just a few quick, almost throwaway lines in the course of three fun, non-Saga-intense adventure stories. I hope the Solo movie will follow in the same style, but I’m starting to doubt that.
    Oh, Han wears his gun low because that’s his fast-draw style, Chewie’s “sash” is an ammo bandolier for his crossbow, and Han’s vest & shirt replaces his old military tunic. And that’s all that we really need to know about that.

    • IIRC, Han (and Chewie)’s look was heavily inspired by Westerns, with Han being the default gunfighter, and Chewie being the (probably Native American) sidekick with a bandolier of rifle cartridges. But in Space!

      Which gets to a secondary issue in the whole “plot hole” discussion, that being lots of things were done for purely aesthetic reasons which only later needed some kind of explanation as to “why” they are.

      Used to be only certain franchises were big enough that there was that need to explain that back detail, but that list seems to be expanding greatly (Pacific Rim is the one in my mind that sticks out a lot in this).

  • PhysUnknown

    I really liked Rogue One; I feel like it did what Lucas’s prequels didn’t – it gave us backstory we didn’t fully know (and maybe didn’t really need), but kept it in line with the movies that followed it (i.e. didn’t create inconsistencies, didn’t introduce characters that have major impact on the plot, survive, but are never heard from again, didn’t make us wonder if Obi-Wan was lying on purpose or just had a craptastic memory). I mean, I guess the final scene bad-assery from Vader makes you wonder why he’s so stiff and wooden a few days later when fighting Obi-Wan (honor? Ben can’t move much, so Vader goes easy on him?).

    I do think that the “I built a flaw into it” was the worst part of Rogue One, just in terms of that movie, let alone the original trilogy. I think having them go after the plans on just the slim hope of finding any possible weakness makes the story far more interesting than going after the plans because they KNOW there’s a weakness.

  • Edgar Pinecone

    That’s a lot of writing just to get it all wrong. 😉

    The exhaust port itself wasn’t part of Erso’s plan at all. He sabotaged the design of the reactor, making it vulnerable.

    The exhaust port attack was the result of the Rebels studying the DS plans and discovering a way to get a torpedo down to it.

  • Olaf_the_Lofty

    “And how does Luke destroy the Death Star? He shuts off his technology, and his targeting computer, and uses the Force.”
    Despite watching this film I don’t know how many times, I had never connected that with Vader’s remark about the power of the Force. Suddenly it all makes a lot more sense, and my respect for George Lucas is much increased. As is my respect for you, for pointing it out. Thank you.

  • Thomas Stockel

    Smaug had a chink in his armor and nobody ever gave Tolkein grief. I never had a problem with the exhaust port plot device myself.

  • MichaelANovelli

    These days, I always take “plot hole” to mean “since I didn’t like the movie, I stopped paying attention”, since just about every plot hole I hear about is actually explained in the film in question.

    Looking at you, MovieBob!

    • Wizkamridr

      I don’t understand why MovieBob hates BVS so much. He acts like Snyder beat him up in the alley and took his money. Reeve will always be my favorite Superman, but I didn’t hate MOS or BVS.

  • Chris Hannibal

    The exhaust port was not the “flaw” designed into the Death Star, the exhaust port was a way to get to the flaw. In Rogue One there is a message to Jyn from her father, explaining that he put a flaw in the reactor that any pressurized explosion on the reactor would cause it to destroy the Death Star. They needed to get the plans for the Death Star so they could find a way to access the reactor, which kind of says to me that her father, while he designed the weapon and reactor, he didn’t design the whole station including the exhaust ports, otherwise he could have just told them what to look for.

  • If the exhaust post was a proper functioning one, the gases escaping out would have pushed out the torpedo rendering the rebel’s plan worthless.