'The Last Jedi' takes a side in the class war

February 22, 2018
Finn, Rey and Rose in 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Written & directed by Rian Johnson
In cinemas

Before touching down on the planet of Canto Bight, Rose looks down forebodingly to tell us that it’s full of the “worst people in the galaxy”. Cut to champagne glasses clinking and a casino full of galactic 1-percenters.

“Only one business in the galaxy can get you this rich,” Rose — a new character in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a mechanic on the Rebel flagship — explains to returning hero Finn as they look around the beachfront resort planet, “selling weapons to the First Order.” She goes on to tell her family’s history: forced to work on a First Order mining colony before it was bled out and blitzed for weapons testing.

After being jailed on Canto Bight for parking their spaceship on a private beach, our heroes escape — in part — by corralling Dickensian child labourers to release a pack of abused extraterrestrial racehorses that crash through the casino like Jesus cleansing the temple of money lenders.

With The Last Jedi, Star Wars has chosen a side in the class war.

The franchise’s bread-and-butter has always been a kind of good-versus-evil moralising that transcended Earthly politics, with plenty to grasp onto for people on all sides. Libertarians could glom onto Han Solo’s mercenary entrepreneurship. Leftists could see the rebellion in terms of their own scrappy, uphill battle against the powerful. Liberals could celebrate the reverence for the republican institution of the Senate.

Meanwhile, in 2002, conservative writer Jonathan V Last wrote in The Weekly Standard that, “The deep lesson of Star Wars is that the Empire is good”. He called Emperor Palpatine — the main villain and ouright authoritarian of the original trilogy and prequels — an “esoteric Straussian”.

“Make no mistake,” he wrote, “as emperor, Palpatine is a dictator — but a relatively benign one, like Pinochet [the Chilean dictator who overthrew an elected left-wing government in the 1970s and killed and jailed thousands of people].

“It’s a dictatorship people can do business with … The Empire has virtually no effect on the daily life of the average, law-abiding citizen.”

Neoconservative commentator Bill Kristol has defended this position, recently tweeting that there remains “no objective evidence Empire was ‘evil’”. For its part, conservative blog The Federalist used its review of The Last Jedi to mount a quasi-defence of eugenics and Confederate monuments.

Unsurprisingly, The Federalist was not a fan of the most recent film — and for good reason. The Last Jedi is Star Wars for populist times, which sides firmly with the left.

Luke Skywalker spends most of the film disparaging the importance of “that mighty Skywalker blood”. Meanwhile, his far-right nephew and one-time Jedi apprentice Kylo Ren tries to live out the birthright-to-evil supposedly gifted from his grandfather, Darth Vader.

Resistance fighter Rey, grasping for her own prestigious lineage, wants Luke to teach her the ways of the Jedi. He forcibly responds that the Jedi themselves — a centuries-old religious order that once functioned as a kind of unaccountable, elite, interplanetary police force — should fade into memory.

“To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity,” Luke says. “The legacy of the Jedi is failure.”

The golden age of the Jedi — as seen in the prequels — helped sow the seeds for Vader and Palpatine’s reign. It was the Jedi academy that helped turn Anakin Skywalker into a mass murderer.

It’s a rebuke of elite politics and the rule of experts, whether they wield spreadsheets or lightsabers. It is a welcome retcon of the prequels’ eugenicist argument that access to the force is genetic destiny.

Rey — perhaps the most powerful force-user in generations, speculated to be the long-lost spawn of either Luke or Obi-Wan Kenobi — is actually the child of “nothing” junk traders who, as Kylo Ren tells her, probably “sold her off for drinking money”.

Rose, for her part, apologises for being a lowly worker to Finn and stands in awe of him before — just moments later — exposing him as a coward.

What The Last Jedi advises is a radical break from resistance as we know it: abandoning old tactics and loyalties, and handing the keys — or at least more of them — over to the grassroots: the mechanics, the child labourers, the Ewoks and the rebel foot soldiers.

The resistance of the Star Wars films has never been particularly visionary, operating as a kind of top-down, underground rebellion looking to reconstitute the New Republic of the prequels. Its biggest heroes have been messiah figures, princesses and the so-called great men.

The biggest heroes of The Last Jedi, by contrast, are the proletariat — working stiffs who’ve gotten the short shrift throughout the franchise. They’re also mostly women, and many are people of colour — not unlike the makeup of the US working class.

Rebel Admiral Leia Organa (the final film performance of Carrie Fisher, to whom the film is dedicated) stays true to her roots as a class traitor and long-time consort to rebel scum.

She stays the course and boosts morale in the darkest of times, while occasionally pulling out some crazy impressive force powers for the greater good. When hotshot resistance pilot Poe Dameron flies off the handle seeking glory, Leia brings him down to Earth via a well-placed blaster shot.

Luke’s solitary retreat to the mystical Jedi home-world of Ahch-To seems less heroic by contrast, even self-indulgent compared to Leia’s lifetime of resisting evil empire in the face of the obliteration of her entire planet and murder of the love of her life at the hands of her own son.

By the end of the film, she’s still at it, investing faith in Rey to help lead the way forward alongside a fledgling young army of rebels.

You don’t need an encyclopaedic knowledge of a galaxy far, far away to understand that today’s resistance needs fresh blood: new fighters and new strategies, but a new vision as well.

Reconstituting the New Republic — the pre-Donald Trump era, in the US case — can only stave off the Sith for so long before recreating the same flaws that let the Empire take power the last time. The Rebellion needs to be reborn to win anything but pyrrhic victories.

As self-styled #Resistance members are lifting up the US’s political dynasties (such as the Clintons) as the best hope to save us from Trump, knocking the Skywalkers’ importance down a peg in the Star Wars franchise lands close to home amid calls for “generic” Democratic candidates and liberal pining for the Obama years.

All the consultants and name recognition in the world couldn’t win the 2016 election for the Democrats — and in all likelihood probably hurt their cause. If The Last Jedi has a political takeaway, it’s for political revolution and a bottom-up transformation of not just who’s in power, but who gets to decide how that revolution happens.

The new film’s plot holes and a messy storyline are good fodder for critics, but let’s leave that for them. Meanwhile, it’s hard to watch the First Order picking off rebel ships and not think of the early days of the Trump administration; the onslaught of attacks on everything from immigrant rights to the environment. This is a long fight, victories are few and far between, and casualties are mounting.

The Last Jedi self-consciously brings the rebellion into the resistance. Let your heroes and old dogmas die. Rebel scum have nothing to lose but their chains.

[Reprinted from The Intercept.]

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