“The Last Jedi” Does Not Support Your Politics

“The Last Jedi” Does Not Support Your Politics December 27, 2017

Not long ago at all, in a galaxy very close to home, a war rages: is Star Wars: The Last Jedi an assault on everything true Star Wars fans hold dear, or a triumphant strike against oppression of all kinds? On one side, Star Wars fans fueled by anger and rage complain that the new entry in the series was designed to infuriate them, a personal middle finger to the face. “The Last Jedi trolled fans from start to finish. They bent us over and made us watch in horror”, one YouTube Sith Lord screams.

On the other, champions of the Light Side hail the movie as a purposely subversive assault on patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and capitalism, describing it in glowing terms as essentially the next volume in The Communist Manifesto. “Those who wanted a safe and comforting Star Wars movie are understandably upset. The Last Jedi is anything but safe. It’s as subversive as it gets, and I am here for it.”, writes Melissa of the Bitter Gertrude blog, in a rather excellent review.

Who is right?

Clearly, given my (rather obvious) opening metaphor, my sympathies are more with those offering a social justice oriented take on the film than those decrying it as a personal attack on them and their fandom. I think, along with these more positive critics, that the film is broadly successful and is a tribute to the series. That said, both takes currently lighting up the web make a similar mistake (although to different degrees): they reduce a complex film to a simple allegory, missing much of the richness – and many of the genuine problems – of the movie in the process.

This is an understandable error. The Star Wars movies have historically been pretty heavy-handed, the good guys and the bad guys literally designated by their allegiance to “the light side” and “the dark side.” The original trilogy follows traditional heroic tropes pretty closely, even slavishly, and so simplistic interpretations are to be expected. That the latest movie has separated fans into two warring camps is deliciously predictable, given the historic nature of the franchise.

The Last Jedi, though, is a rather more interesting work than its predecessors in the series, and bluntly allegorical readings miss the extent to which the film is allowing multiple interpretations, finely balancing reverence for the past with ruthless appreciation of the new. So with that in mind, I thought I’d ramble through some considerations about the film, exploring some of the complexity which more simplistic takes are missing. Obviously, massive spoilers for The Last Jedi abound.

Killing the Buddha

My absolute favorite scene in The Last Jedi is the one in which blue-ghost Yoda summons lightning to burn down the tree-temple ostensibly holding the sacred Jedi texts, an act of sacrilege from which Luke, at the last moment, quails. Linji Yixuan, prominent Zen master, is reported to have said “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” This has been interpreted in many ways, but one of the most enduring interpretations stresses that to fetishize a set of religious teachings can be to lose its essence – and this certainly is a danger to which the Jedi Order has fallen, its rules and regulations getting in the way of the spiritual vibrancy of its movement, ultimately leading to its downfall. The burning of the Jedi temple is a delicious moment of Buddha murder, made all the more delightful by the fact that it is the Star Wars Buddha himself, Yoda, who is doing the killing. It seems as though the master himself is giving permission for things to move on, gleefully erasing the past to allow the new to flourish.

But – and here is the really important thing – killing the Buddha is not an act of disrespect toward the Buddha. It is decidedly not a way to thumb one’s nose at the Buddha’s teachings. Rather, we are told to kill the Buddha as the ultimate act of respect for the ideas the Buddha teaches. The point is not to erase the master’s teachings, but to live up to them. Yoda’s delighted cackle as the temple burns is a wonderful piece of characterization, reinstating his image, from the original trilogy, as a zany and unpredictable figure who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He seems to be reveling in the destruction of a tradition he himself represents. Yet the joke is, at least to some extent, on Yoda, for it is revealed in a later scene that the sacred texts of the Jedi Order are unburnt: Rey has saved them and secreted them in her ship.

Many reviews seem to miss or simply skate over this fact, preferring to see in the supposed book-burning either an outrageous insult to long-term Star Wars fans, or a noble act signifying the ultimate irrelevancy and decrepitude of the Jedi Order (and, as in some more explicitly political readings, the elite leadership the Jedi Order represents). But the fact that Rey chooses to save these texts – even though they are not, in Yoda’s judgment, “page turners” – is potentially very important indeed. For all Rey is heralded as a fresh start for the series, she is seemingly interested in preserving at least something of the old Jedi ways. She recognizes value in the wisdom of her spiritual forebears at the very moment Luke despairs of them. The Last Jedi, in this regard, paints a rather more complex picture than many critics currently allow, intelligently asking “What wisdom of the past should freedom fighters of today cherish – even if their current keepers fail to recognize their value?”

Rey’s Parentage

Also complex is the question of Rey’s parentage. Ostensibly, The Last Jedi “reveals” Rey’s parents to be insignificant nobodies, making a mockery of some of the extravagant fan theories suggesting she is a clone of Luke or related to the Emperor or what have you. Some of the film’s more enthusiastic supporters have pointed to the revelation that Rey’s parents are of no particular importance as yet another piece of evidence that the film is “on their side”, politically, a strike against the fixation of the previous movies on the Skywalker bloodline and a reminder that, in the new Star Wars, anyone can become a powerful force user. The film thus becomes an allegory for the sort of egalitarian world they (and I) hope to build. The film’s detractors see this part of the movie as yet more proof that the film is outrageously casting aside precious traditions of the series and ruining the elaborate setups of its forebears.

There are a couple of problems with these takes, however, which again reveal the film to be rather more interesting than simple allegorical interpretations allow. First, I see no reason why we should take Rey’s own pronouncement about her parentage at face value. She comes to a “realization” about her parents during a confrontation with Kylo Ren, who is actively trying to recruit her to the Dark Side. We know that the Sith use lies and manipulation freely in order to twist people’s feelings, and that instilling feelings of fear and anger are essential to turning someone to the Dark Side. In this context, what credence can we give to the following exchange?:

KYLO REN: You know the truth. Say it.

REY: They were nobody.

KYLO REN: They were filthy junk traders who sold you off for drinking money. They’re dead, in a paupers’ grave in the Jakku desert.

At no point during this scene did I get the sense that we are supposed simply to believe, without any doubt whatsoever, that what Kylo Ren is saying is the gospel truth. We have no independent confirmation of what he says, and are given no reason as to why he should even know who Rey’s parents are, except for his claim that he saw them in a vision. Yet Rey herself has also had visions of (perhaps) her parents, leaving in a shining spaceship, decidedly not dead, and has spent years waiting for their return. So why believe Ren over Rey’s earlier convictions – particularly at a moment in which he is most obviously attempting to manipulate her?

My point here is not to deny that Rey’s parents could genuinely be “nobody”. That would be an interesting choice for the series, one I’d like to see pursued (Marissa Martinelli makes a strong case for the veracity of the revelation in this piece for Slate). My point is that there is absolutely no sense in which The Last Jedi “confirms” Rey’s parentage: it is still very much an open question, given any reading of the text which respects all the evidence. Both those who are seizing on this “revelation” as evidence that the film is a terrible insult to fans, and those who see within it a heroic statement of their own political perspective, are missing interesting complexity in the text. The next film has a lot of room to move, given the way Rey’s parentage was handled in The Last Jedi. The question is by no means closed.

Second, and problematic for those who see in Rey a strike against the historic elitism of the Star Wars universe: even if Rey is indeed the child of “nobodies”, this in no intelligible sense makes her a simple symbol of the rise of a new political force untethered from elites of the past. Regardless of her parentage, Rey wields extraordinary cosmic powers. Rey commands space magic which simply isn’t accessible to all people in the Star Wars universe (at least as that universe currently stands). Notwithstanding Luke’s perorations on the Force being a power found in the tension between all things, it is still the case that in the Star Wars universe only a select few can actually manipulate the Force, and whether that power comes from one’s lineage or not seems to me less significant than the fact that the existence of the Force inevitably separates out the galaxy into a Force-wielding elites and non-Force-wielding regulars. Rey is the member of a galactic elite by virtue of her mastery of the Force, whether the film wishes to portray her that way or not – and this problematizes any reading which portrays Rey’s humble ancestry as a strike for anti-elitism. A series in which a select few are cosmic wizards and everyone else is not can only go so far in promoting egalitarian politics.

Finn and Rose and Class and Capitalism

Now to perhaps the main problem with the film: its largely unsuccessful attempt to explore themes of class struggle and capitalism within the context of the Star Wars universe. My objection, to be clear, is not that The Last Jedi attempts to address issues of class and economic inequality. I think it appropriate that the cultural touchstones of our time should explore political themes, and I applaud the film for trying to introduce a more sophisticated approach to its heroic narrative. My objection is that The Last Jedi introduces these important themes in a heavy-handed and obvious manner, and fails to do them justice.

Many of the problems with this aspect of the narrative can be laid at the feet, I’m sorry to say, of the subplot involving Rose Tico and Finn in which they attempt to shut down the tracking system enabling the First Order to follow the Resistance though hyperspace. I completely understand that many people enjoyed this subplot, and that Rose has already become a beloved character in the Star Wars universe. To those who enjoyed this part of the movie, I wish you the greatest happiness with it. For my own part, while I wish they had pulled it off, I view this whole section of the movie a colossal mess. To be clear, I’m not saying here merely that I disliked it – there were some parts of this subplot I quite enjoyed. I’m saying that it was bad filmmaking and poor storytelling, for a number of concrete aesthetic reasons I will now attempt to outline, and that as a result the film undercuts the very values it hope to promote.

To begin with, the Finn/Rose subplot was introduced far too late in the film to allow the characters (particularly Rose) to shine. It all begins after the film gives the feeling of being artificially extended, through the unconvincing mechanism of the long, slow chase of the Resistance cruiser which pads the latter chunk of the film. It is highly implausible, and inconsistent with the established lore of the series, that the First Order should be incapable of outpacing a Resistance Cruiser, forced to plod along behind it until it runs out of fuel. More importantly, it is simply bad storytelling: there is no sense of urgency or drama to the glacial movement of these huge space vessels as one ineffectually pats the other’s bottom with its laser guns. There are a million ways a chase sequence such as this could have been made both plausible and interesting, but The Last Jedi fails to provide any tension at all here, making the numerous subplots which occur as the vessels trundle after each other feel forced, especially given the taught pacing of the rest of the story.

Adding to the inessential feel of this subplot is the fact that the outcome is ultimately inconsequential. Finn and Rose, of course, do not succeed in their mission, captured by the increasingly ridiculous General Hux (the cartoonish nature of the film’s villains is another problem – one I don’t have time to explore here). Certainly, in war some plans don’t pan out, and while the failure of the mission feels anticlimactic, it’s not necessarily deadly to the effectiveness of the subplot. What does kill the sublot is the reveal, shortly after Rose and Finn’s failure, that whether they had succeeded or not  their efforts would have been irrelevant, because the plan was always for the Resistance to abandon ship anyway, and regroup on the salt planet Crait. Rose and Finn, whether or not they had succeeded in their subplot, would have had no impact at all on the development of the main storyline. The fact that their mission to Canto Bight was itself a failure (their attempt to infiltrate the casino world brought down by a rookie error of parking on a private beach – a blink and you’d miss it plot point) only reinforces the sense that nothing in this part of the story was essential to the plot.

This wouldn’t be so much of an issue were the scenes themselves particularly interesting or well done, but the honest truth is that they are too short and perfunctory to allow Rose time to blossom into a fully-fledged character, or even to allow Finn to do anything much more than provide some awkward comic relief (a position he’s been stuck in since the character was introduced, sadly). The two characters are simply not given enough screen time to flourish here, seeing as they are put in the sorry position of having to pull off an entire heist movie in the space of a few short, oddly-placed scenes. Everything about the excursion to Cantonica is a profound mess, from the pacing to the dialogue to the plot beats. (Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post offers an excellent analysis here.) Nothing about it works well, and it makes Finn and Rose look like incompetent rubes – particularly unfortunate when compared with the complexity the movie effectively bestows on the characters of Rey and Kylo Ren.

That these bungled scenes carry much of the weight of a major thematic plank of the film is a significant problem. It’s clear that The Last Jedi wants to introduce a critique of capitalism, and remind the viewer that the intergalactic war we see from the viewpoint of heroes has profound effects on the lives of “ordinary people”. This is a laudable aim, and the lack of much consideration of the stakes of the war between the Rebels/Resistance and the Empire/First Order has been a problem for the entire Star Wars series. Sadly, The Last Jedi introduces these themes in such a ham-fisted manner that it undermines the critique they are trying to make. The pointlessness of the scenes from a narrative perspective gives the sense that the themes the scenes explore are themselves inessential, shoved into a story which is really about something else. The thinness of the characterization offered Finn and Rose reinforces this sorry idea, making Rose in particular seem like a symbol of the themes, rather than a fully-fledged character in her own right. Rose exists, it seems, as a vehicle for the film’s political commentary – which does a disservice to her character and to her potential as a player in the Star Wars universe.

One might respond that these scenes are essential to the film precisely because they introduce themes of class and capitalism directly – that their purpose is to do just this. But this is exactly the problem: this storyline feels as if it were introduced merely for the purpose of adding some social commentary, and not because it is driven by the motives of the characters or ultimately necessitated by the plot. And it feels that way because of where the scenes are placed in the film, and how they are scripted and handled. This is simply bad storytelling and bad filmmaking, and it does nothing to advance the values the unfortunate scenes ostensibly exist to promote.

Again, I delight in the fact that Star Wars is attempting to address weighty political issues, and its heart is certainly in the right place. But however much we might support the political agenda of a work of art, we shouldn’t cheer when artworks support our politics or our values badly. A sophisticated, compelling artwork can convey political and social values more powerfully than can almost anything else, inspiring people to examine those values in a new light. But a clumsy and inarticulate one can likewise harm the conveyance of those values, by making them seem clumsy and inarticulate too. Some of the backlash to The Last Jedi’s politics is due, I think, to the fumbling way in which those politics are introduced, shoved at the viewer in a series of frankly disastrous and inessential scenes. Had the same themes been handled more deftly, they may have reached – and convinced – more viewers.

Separating Politics and Aesthetic Judgment

And this is the point of all this commentary, if point there is: we must not allow our politics to cloud our aesthetic judgment. Just as I’ve argued it is possible to separate our judgments of artistic quality from our artistic tastes, it is possible – and essential – to distinguish our support for the ostensible politics of an artwork from our judgments of its quality as a work of art. The Last Jedi is in many ways a good movie. It has a number of exquisite scenes and, in general, tells an engaging story with flair and creativity. It makes useful points about patriarchy and toxic masculinity. I enjoyed the film very much, and look forward to multiple future viewings. But it is certainly not a simple allegory for any particular political position, nor an effective critique of class or capitalism. Perhaps the next movie will be, but this one isn’t. Where The Last Jedi explores political questions well, it does so with nuance many of its harshest critics miss. Where it does so badly, it suffers from flaws its biggest admirers don’t accept.

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