The Last Jedi is centrist slop masquerading as radical sci-fi

Image by Disney

This article contains spoilers.

The Last Jedi, the eighth episode of the legendary Star Wars series, has been out for less than 10 days but already boasts well over $650 million in revenue from the box office.

Predictably, it’s also triggered a near-literal landslide of hot takes about the movie’s characters and plot points, as well as why much of the hardcore Star Wars fan base has rebelled against various aspects of the film — reasons that range from its slapstick humour, to Luke Skywalker’s unexpected plotline, to director Rian Johnson’s apparent disregard for many of the “rules” governing the fictional universe.

Some reviewers have delved into the supposed political aspects of the 152-minute film.

CNN declared that the film “appears to lean into the political fray, from its egalitarian message to a more specific critique of callous plutocrats.” By far the most detailed was The Guardian’s Toby Moses bloviating that “The Last Jedi is as left wing as Jeremy Corbyn,” detailing it “as red as Kylo Ren’s lightsaber,” “a revolutionary entry into Star Wars canon” and a clear demonstration of “how to defeat tyranny through community.”

Unfortunately, The Last Jedi is anything but revolutionary.

Instead, it offers up a vapid and apolitical thesis that echoes the non-ideology of Clintonite, Third Way-obsessed technocrats — that there’s no longer such thing as “good” or “evil,” traditions and histories can be discarded, and the primary commitment of a “rebel” is to non-material notions such as love and friendship over any semblance of political conviction.

A quick caveat

This response isn’t just a meaningless exercise in pop culture meta-critique.

The “Still With Her” obsessives have clumsily dubbed themselves as “The Resistance” in online circles, directly referencing Star Wars rhetoric and imagery. Mark Hamill, who returns to his role as Luke Skywalker, recently sparred with Texan senator and Republican primary candidate Ted Cruz over net neutrality over Twitter.

The franchise has been lurched into the political limelight.

But the shift has been meaningless, thanks to the refusal by new Star Wars directors to actually pin any ideological convictions on the tail of the so-called Rebellion. Of course, this in itself shouldn’t come as much surprise given the sale of Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Company in 2012; it’s doubtful that Disney would encourage scripts that encourage the explorations of deep political nuances and motivations.

Rather, the primary concern here is that critics and fans are claiming The Last Jedi as a significant win for political sci-fi. This a gravely naive mistake — both for real-life politics and made-up cinema — and one that requires contesting.

Key questions in The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi takes place immediately after the events of 2015’s The Force Awakens.

The Resistance, led by General Organa (previously Princess Leia) are fleeing from the forces of the First Order — a sizable dictatorship roaming the galaxies in the wake of the Galactic Empire’s collapse in the Return of the Jedi, vindictively trying to quash the remnants of the rebels.

The first major red flag relates to this: none of the processes by which the First Order emerges as a new power is actually explained in the first two movies of the “sequel trilogy.”

Between the sequels, there were two major things that hardcore fans were debating and hypothesizing about. Firstly, who were the parents of Rey, the scrappy female protagonist from the remote planet of Jakku? And who the hell was Snoke, the extremely mysterious and grotesque Supreme Leader of the First Order, who only appeared in The Force Awakens to boss Kylo Ren around?

Neither question was answered in The Last Jedi.

That was arguably a stylistic decision made by director Rian Johnson — someone who typically prefers to leave viewers hanging for the sake of tension, echoing predecessor J.J. Abram’s half-admired, half-ridiculed idea of the “mystery box.”

The debate of how Rey’s familial past was communicated seems a fair one. But the emergence of Snoke — and the complete lack of clarity about his ascent — seems a dangerous omission in the era of Trump. Especially when you compare these films to the incredibly infamous prequels.

[Ducks as everyone throws rotten tomatoes]

In defence of the prequels

Let’s begin with the obvious.

The prequels, released between the years 1999 and 2005, were truly awful when it comes to filmmaking. From character development, to dialogue, to rampant usage of underdeveloped CGI sequences — the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were all crippled by the same fundamental flaws. There’s no excusing those films.

But they at least pretended to care about political processes.

Sure, such plot points were often pathetically arbitrary and hamfisted. Yet they hinted at a specific vision that Star Wars creator George Lucas had — one in which Senator Palpatine exploits political bureaucracy, a manufactured military crisis, naive trust in “the system” and decaying abilities by the Jedi to sense evil to gain a foothold to absolute power.

Oh, and direct complicity by the capitalist class.

It’s easily missed if you’re not looking for it. But littered throughout the extremely flawed prequels are near-constant references to greedy capitalists.

The opening scene to the long-awaited Phantom Menace concerned a trade blockade — one specifically initiated to protest the taxation of Free Trade Zones in the outer rim. Related factions are named and shamed in the Attack of the Clones: the Commerces Guilds and the Corporate Alliance, for instance.

‘Let me remind you of our absolute commitment to capitalism’

There’s a clear relationship between money, power and evil presented in the prequels.

While it didn’t make it to the actual movie, a proposed line from Count Dooku in a draft script for Attack of the Clones reveals much of what Lucas was concerned with: “As I explained to you earlier, I’m quite convinced that ten thousand more solar systems will rally to our cause with your support, gentlemen. And let me remind you of our absolute commitment to capitalism…of the lower taxes, the reduce tariffs, and the eventual abolition of all trade barriers. Signing this treaty will bring you profits beyond your wildest imagination. What we are proposing is completely free trade.”

It can’t get much clearer than that.

Other lines throughout the prequels referenced the corruption of money in politics, how electoral democracy can be lost via appeals to wartime powers and the ways in which capitalist classes can be willingly manipulated to enable fascist leaders. In short: a fairly astute analogy for 2017.

As University of Toronto professor Anne Lancashire put it in a 2002 paper, Attack of the Clones represented: “The economic and political greed and ambition — the dark-side unrestrained appetite — of the political and business classes, above all, that in Clones is leading towards the death of democracy (the Republic) and the rise of political dictatorship (the Empire).”

Abandoning political cohesiveness

To reiterate: there was much wrong with the prequels. This is not an attempt to rehabilitate those cinematic skiffwrecks.

But there is political utility in such films, serving as a potential response to the simplistic “good” versus “evil” narrative present in the original trilogy. It’s that which the directors of the recent films — The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi — had the opportunity to capitalize on, combining top-notch filmmaking and execution with thoughtful writing and political machinations.

By now, it’s clear. They’ve given up on any such opportunity.

The Jedi Order in the prequels were cultish, puritan peacekeepers: the mere remnants of a hyper-religious organization that had long fought to maintain stability in the universe on behalf of the often exploitative Core Worlds. It can be argued that there were still good intentions exhibited by the Jedi Order, with much talk of defending the poor and vulnerable. There was plenty of room to build something out of that shell, to construct something that wasn’t quite as punishing of sex, or passion, or anger (all qualities that apparently led to the ruthless Dark Side).

Instead, The Last Jedi wrestled the Jedi Order and supposed Light Side sharply in the direction of the meaningless.

A pivotal moment of the movie is when the apparition of Yoda appears to discipline the elderly Luke for being a mopey and combative participant in the Resistance’s final push for survival. In the process of attempting to incentivize Luke to get off the literal island that he’s hermiting on, Yoda helps to burn an ancient Jedi temple supposedly containing sacred Jedi texts (we find out later that they were salvaged).

The message in this scene — that the past should be left to die, former ideological framings rendered obsolete, disciplined training something too structured for this postmodern age — was further cemented by a strange dialogue in an otherwise meaningless plot point that saw a seedy hacker tell two protagonists that weapons traders on a particularly extravagant casino-oriented planet actually sell weapons to both the First Order and the Resistance.

It was explicit both-sideism. There is no right or wrong, good or evil — each side purchases weaponry and are therefore implicated in the process.

Nothing left to fight for

This message in itself is aided by the reality that the Resistance has no clear ideology asides from its very rebellion against the First Order.

One can’t locate a more specific example of Democrats in the United States that this. It takes on an incredibly morbid tone near the end — trapped in a tiny fortress on an otherwise abandoned planet, the Resistance sends a call out to nearby galaxies for assistance.

Nobody comes. Well, except one person — we won’t spoil it here.

This reluctance by any other faction or species to show up when it counted most — when the Resistance was literally facing its extinction — says a tremendous deal about its lack of ideology. Unlike previous episodes and battles, in which clear lines were drawn between the imperialist corporatists and exploited Indigenous species and allies, the final scene in The Last Jedi resulted in nobody else showing to fight because there was nothing to fight for.

It’s not like we’re expecting the Resistance to clearly articulate a vision for single-payer healthcare, a $15/hour minimum wage and enormous investments in intergalactic public transit (although that would nice).

But a clear articulation of any vision at all would be welcome. Given the less-than-subtle references to animal liberation sprinkled throughout the movie, it really doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Near the end, a key character proclaims: “We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!”

The problem is that it’s completely unclear what “we love” actually entails. At one point in the film, an otherwise obscure character makes a joke about a militarized labour dispute that they’re participating in. You can’t actually tell if they’re on the side of the workers or capitalists. It’s a fill-in-the-blank quip, one that would be equally digestible by neo-conservatives, liberals or anarcho-communists.

The Resistance no longer stands for anything. The film concludes with a white boy staring up into the stars, dreaming of joining the rebellion, whatever that means.

Plenty of examples displaying sci-fi radicalism

Some might argue that this is truly irrelevant terrain — to expect Disney to produce complex anti-capitalist narratives is well beyond reason and distracting from the tangible political context that we find ourselves in.

This is undoubtedly true in many respects.

Pop culture criticism is frequently a dead end, with the greatest found with more black and brown people cast into roles that ultimately uphold capitalism: we don’t need to look any further than Netflix’s Dear White People to see how activism can be caricatured and whiteness inevitably centred.

But for better or worse, Star Wars matters a great deal. And recent entries are also positioned alongside other films that actually dare to take politics seriously — think Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, Jordan Vogt-Roberts Kong: Skull Island or Bong Joon-ho’s Okja. Each of those three films presented deeply compelling narratives alongside subtle political messages about colonialism, war, environmental devastation and Indigenous resurgence.

Star Wars could do that. It could harness the otherwise botched storytelling of the prequels, combine it with the brilliant execution of the new films and complete it with the sincerity of the originals.

There’s an extremely slim chance that future Star Wars entries will dodge the rancor pit of gutless centrism. One can surely hope for change. At this point, it almost seems assured that we’re destined for a succession of films that look and sound spectacular but mean next to nothing.

Perhaps that’s most fitting for the era of Trump — our most beloved childhood franchise that has been caricatured, neutered and forced face-first into the mill of mindless entertainment, resulting in record box-office returns while we expect nothing in return.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in Calgary, and contributes to DeSmog Canada, VICE, CBC Calgary, Alberta Oil, Fast Forward Weekly and Geez magazine.

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