Starting Over with The Last Jedi

Here we go again, another Star Wars movie. After the reboot of the franchise in The Force Awakens took the safe route and essentially mimicked the original Star Wars episode IV, expectations were pretty low that The Last Jedi would give this next generation something sizable to chew on. When Disney bought the rights to the Star Wars brand it was safe to assume that the same tropes and themes would resurface in shiny new graphics, that they would give enough fan service to keep up with merchandizing profits, that they would sustain continuity between the generations. The fairy tale magic that George Lucas brought to the baby boomers was such a strong force in pop culture that it was bound to make a come-back and Star Wars probably will continue build on its universe in a time when its world is so well-entrenched in the mainstream consciousness. I still remember when my parents took me to see the 1990’s remakes of the original trilogy: it was a kind of inter-generational transference of pop-culture that (most importantly) brought families out to buy movie tickets of a movie they had already seem (many times I’m sure). After that success, Lucas Arts hit the accelerator on filming the prequels and turning this legendary trilogy into a billion dollar franchise that will seemingly never go away.

But then something strange happened. The Last Jedi didn’t play it safe, it threw everything that Star Wars represented out the window, at least for most of the movie. The primary protagonist Rey’s back-story suddenly doesn’t matter. The evil villain is killed unceremoniously and his back-story is even less important. The great legend Luke Skywalker seems to have reverted to his teenage self and whines and pouts about how things could be different, only this time with a brooding sense of failure. Yoda burns books. Leia can fly through space. Much is left unexplained. And fans were pissed.

Though critics received the movie well, the fans were divided straight down the middle: you loved it or you hated it. Fanboys who invested so much of their time and energy into the Star Wars universe were devastated that someone could send such a wrecking-ball into their dreams. Much of The Last Jedi is outright ridiculous and feels almost like it was calculated to provoke outrage; after all, we live in an age of online social media fury where trolls abound under the bridges of every post and making controversial statements seems like the only way to get attention anymore. And this is what brings me to a curious thought about Star Wars and pop-culture: is this hot-mess of a movie actually brilliant for being bad? Did it torpedo itself on purpose?

Perhaps the problem with The Last Jedi is not with The Last Jedi but with Star Wars. Perhaps there was something deep within the Star Wars themes and story structure that was wrong and needed fixing. The biggest criticism of The Force Awakens was that it was basically the same movie as A New Hope. It’s easy to see why people would think that Disney took this complaint seriously and took too far a turn in the opposite direction, giving the fans something so completely different that it upset them. What Rian Johnson did with the script of the Last Jedi was fundamentally alter the logic of the Star Wars universe. It was a bold move and it opens up a crack in one of the biggest (perhaps The biggest?) fantasy worlds of the present. Judging the movie based on how far it strays from its source material and how uncharacteristic its portrayals were is only to announce that you don’t want your fantasies altered. A proper critique of The Last Jedi must ask what themes the film is trying to convey to its audience, what message is it trying to send to the children that it so acutely advertises to.

And this is the first big point about The Last Jedi, broadly speaking: it severs the ties from one Star Wars fan base (the original one) and the other (the new one). It tells the new fan base: the old heroes failed. Luke Skywalker is a cynical recluse. General Leia led her rebel army into oblivion (and that’s after allowing the fascists to rise again after winning the first great galactic war). Han Solo, well, I guess wasn’t very fit to be a father. The Last Jedi opens up the possibility that the entire Star Wars ethic that champions a rag-tag group of rebels tapping into a long lost ancient metaphysic to defeat the empire is simply and inevitably a losing option. As Kylo Ren says in a line that was repeated ad nauseum in the trailers and set the tone for the movie: “Forget the past, kill it if you have to.”** It’s all wrong. The Jedi order, the rebels fighting the empire, the entire moral code that Star Wars perpetuated so effectively throughout American culture and farther: throw it all away and start over. Though everything is put into question, The Last Jedi doesn’t actually start over. It challenges and alters the conventional Star Wars ethos but keeps some things in tact. I’ll try and suss out what it keeps and what it casts away.

Second point, the empire in its totalitarian fascist form is only a symptom of a greater systemic problem. It’s as if Rian Johnson was trying to solve a problem caused by his predecessor’s rehashing of A New Hope: the rebels allowed the First Order to rise in power after gaining control of the galaxy and nobody was willing to admit it. Something must have happened that forced the rebels to be rebels again instead of new legislators making a new and more perfect government. After all, we caught a glimpse of an intergalactic federal republic in the prequels, so why are we back to square one fighting the machine instead of running it? The Last Jedi doesn’t just hint at this defect in the The Force Awakens, it offers an explanation: a whole planet of rich weapons manufacturers in Canto Bight. Even if it is mentioned in a side-quest with only marginal consequences for the main plot, this completely changes the game in the Star Wars universe. The dynamic of totalitarian empire-builders rising to dominate the world and the rebels rising to challenge them are the inevitable and infinitely repeatable outcome of a world in which rich weapons manufacturers can profit off of both sides. The existence of a military industrial complex (neatly wrapped-up in a single planet) all but necessitates war and unending precocity for the world.

Third point, the force is not hereditary anymore. Rey is not a super-powerful jedi-to-be because of her parents bequeathed that power to her, it was a random occurrence, a miracle. At this point, the force is dispersed and accessible to anyone. This ‘democratizes the force’ and removes any elitist presumptions about who can exercise this spiritual power. This gives the viewer the sense that they can use the force if only they got lucky, which can happen to anyone. Kylo Ren still has force powers, being the child of a family lineage with the force, but it can equally surface within a nobody. Kylo himself rebels against his parents directly when he is being trained. Again, the broader point is that the older generation does not determine the course of the next. We need not remain attached to the powers and deeds of our forebearers. Try something different kids.

Fourth point, the jedi order is a fraud that fails as spectacularly as the rebels. The ancient jedi texts that Luke keeps hidden away are unimportant. They are helpful at best, idols at worst. Luke Skywalker focuses Rey’s attention to the Jedi Order’s failures rather than their successes, as if their entire reason for existence is negated because they were undermined by one powerful Sith lord. It never is explained why this is more than a mere one-time failure of the jedi instead of something that shatters their benevolence to the universe. At any rate, Luke Skywalker has decided (with Yoda taking an even more extreme position) that every artifact, all of the training manuals, every piece of received wisdom from past jedi’s, all deserve to be destroyed forever. Rey’s fate is still of paramount importance and Yoda councils Luke to do all that he can to keep her on the light side, but, because of this one failure, all of the tools that will help Luke and future jedi train adolescent jedi-to-be are set ablaze.

With the fifth point things get weirder. After suggesting that nearly everything about Star Wars, the Jedi order, the rebel strategy, and the whole infrastructure that the good guys set up, is wrong, The Last Jedi brings it all back. The fault for the current situation of the rebels and the jedi now seems to rest entirely on Luke Skywalker’s shoulders, or, the problem is with the Jedi Order and not the force itself. Never is the idea of balance questioned, or why leaning heavily on the light side of the force creates the much revered metaphysical balance. The jedi’s failures that result from Luke are evidenced by Kylo Ren’s going toward the dark side, just like Darth Vader’s turn after being trained by a good jedi. Since the order representing the light side of the force keeps producing dark off-spring, there must be something wrong with the order of light itself. Why the blame should rest with the order of light instead of the very notion of a light and dark side of the force is a mystery. To insist that balance is good but that only light possess the good and dark the bad is contradictory: there must be some bad (roughly half) for balance in this manichean force to exist. Rey and Kylo could have together balanced the force in their relationship but instead she chose light at the crucial moment. She does this despite Luke Skywalker himself telling her that the past order of the jedi, with all of their institutional knowledge of the force holds no authority on the force. Believing the jedi know the force better than others is “vanity”: it is anti-democratic. Perhaps they are building up to a true balance of the force in the relationship that Rey and Ren will have but, at this point in the franchise reboot, Rey is still trying to keep to the light side of the force within a broken jedi system that has failed her and her generation.

Six: it was all a misunderstanding. Luke “in a moment of pure instinct” nearly tries to kill his apprentice, but it was a mistake that he realizes just before making the strike. So the divergence between Skywalker and Kylo Ren, what turned him onto the wrong path, is simply a misunderstanding. This appears to make a reunion between Kylo and the light side of the force, just like Darth Vader’s redemption at the end of Episode 6, a live option. Kylo might have stayed on the true path if not for Luke’s lapse of judgment. This leaves open the possibility that the troubles this new generation is facing are all a matter of miscommunication, a momentary fissure that can be mended if everyone simply expressed themselves properly. This is, of course, at odds with the willingness of Yoda and Luke to burn down every important jedi artifact: if everything went wrong because of a simple misunderstanding, then why is the entire edifice judged to be obsolete?

Seven: The lesson that the older generation of freedom fighters must now pass on to the younger is of failure. Teach them how to fail well and keep at it despite failure is more important than education with books or planned master-apprentice relationships. There seems to be nothing worth passing on but, again, it is still imperative that the young stay on the path of light. Teaching someone how to cope with failure and still try to succeed amidst a series of failures is suddenly the only lesson that needs to be passed on for this purpose. It all rests on the decisions of each person makes individually first, and then how whether or not they learn from those mistakes (all by themselves now), second.

Eight: the good leaders are the ones who know how to fail well. Almost every older character messes up in The Last Jedi, whether it be the dashing pilot who over-commits his fleet, Luke Skywalker who fails his apprentice, the new vice admiral Holdo who allows the rebel alliance to be ground down into almost nothing, Fin and his new friend fail to prevent the First Order from tracking the rebels. Good leaders like a redeemed Luke and Holdo sacrifice themselves for the cause of the rebellion in the end. The youth like Fin are told to go on living, carrying the torch of resistance. Martyrs are praised for their devotion to the cause, turning their failures into positive outcomes in spite of their previous mistakes. Everyone of age is wiped out by the end of the movie except for Leia, who is the odd exception. A glorious death that contributes to the cause of fighting the evil power is the way to rectify your failures. Here again, the only lesson the older generation has for the younger is to fail well. It is as if Rian Johnson became obsessed with Samuel Becket while he was writing the script.

Conclusion: If these points really are in the subtext of The Last Jedi, then it feels like what is being passed down to a new generation of Star Wars fans is how to continue failing. Once the old Star Wars characters have lived out their failures and sacrificed themselves for the hope of a better future, the next characters are faced with the burden of an absolute form of choice. Gone are the relics, books, schools, and army that would help guide the youth into an anti-imperial adulthood. At this point, Kylo Ren decided to destroy it all willfully and join the empire. This is one response to the utter failure of ones teachers. But Rian Johnson is asking us to hold onto the idea of the goodness of rebellion against domination and anti-imperialism. It is a message of holding onto hope for the future in times of near collapse. The righteousness of this decision to fight rests on no institutional authority anymore: the jedi and the first rebels only botched it after their initial success. This means that ones choice is now (theoretically) totally free.

This might seem like a fitting ending and a message of hope, but what becomes of it in the end? This movie trilogy has not reached its ending just yet, but already we get a glimpse of what results from the breakdown of institutions and the casting off of all authority. Poe Dameron decides that the chief admiral of the rebel army is deploying a losing strategy and attempts a coup. His insubordination goes unpunished and is even lauded by General Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo. This constant in-fighting is no way to run a military, in fact, it almost guarantees that army’s destruction. Either Poe is reprimanded for sedition or he succeeds in his coup, taking charge and leading the military on a new course. We cannot have it both ways. Without proper discipline to lead an army, rebels have absolutely no chance to defeat an empire. The chain of command was upheld in the previous Star Wars movies and it allowed them to defeat the empire with a carefully laid plan, but in the latest run, including Rogue One especially, insubordination is for some reason a winning trait. If this is what the take-home message of the latest iteration of Star Wars movies is, then the clearing away of all authority, all connection to the past, and any memory of the stability of the old republic is obliterated.

Perhaps the Jedi Order was elitist and futile. The prequels didn’t exactly paint their council meetings in a very democratic light and they resemble more of a revolutionary guard for the republic: a strong arm to quell any dissent within the old order. But this is might be a clue as to why the original rebels failed to prevent the return of an imperial force in the First Order: they lacked the cohesion and discipline to take power after the defeat of the empire. If the new generation of Star Wars characters are ever going to end the cycle of rising empires and rebuild the old republic, then there are some rules and procedures that they will need to establish in order to maintain their power. This cannot happen if a pattern of infighting, insubordination, and absolute anti-authoritarianism are all that an institution-less force can provide. The point of resisting empire is to succeed, not to let every newcomer to the resistance fail all by themselves and hope it will eventually all turn out better in the future.

So those are my gripes with the direction of Star Wars, a franchise I never had that much attachment to in the first place because of its simplistic ‘good vs evil’ Manichean world-view. The force that pervades all throughout the Star Wars universe has a hard and easily distinguished split cutting straight through it, making it fairy-tale simple and vaguely spiritual at once. But this latest installment has done something fresh by introducing shades of grey and suggesting that the real problem for the rebels lies elsewhere. Perhaps the jedi had the wrong idea about the force and perhaps the real enemy was hidden out of sight the whole time. The sidequest we get to Canto Bight, while not having any consequences for the main storyline, opens up the possibility that it is the rich and connected weapons manufacturers that are the root cause of all of this galactic death and totalitarianism. Rian Johnson has written in its own semi-secret military-industrial complex into the Star Wars universe and should be praised for doing so. He’s also challenged the hero-worship of the franchise, forcing the new characters to face stark choices. How far they will go with this new version of the Star Wars mythos is unclear, but the fate of their universe seems now to lie in the hands of Rey and Kylo Ren together. The Yin and Yang relationship will come to full blossom when they together decide which aspects of the old Jedi Order to keep and which to throw away.

Author: billrosethorn

(Geo)Philosopher. Building bridges between populism and geopolitics for fellow earthlings.

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