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 imprisoned on Canto Bight for parking their spaceship on a private beach, our heroes escape — in part — by corralling Dickensian child laborers to release a pack of abused extraterrestrial racehorses that then 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-and-evil moralizing 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 authoritarians in our own time. Liberals could celebrate the reverence for the republican institution of the Senate. 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,” calling Emperor Palpatine — the main villain and ouright authoritarian of the original trilogy and prequels — an “esoteric Straussian.”
“Make no mistake,” he writes, “as emperor, Palpatine is a dictator — but a relatively benign one, like Pinochet. 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.” Bill Kristol defended the position at the time and again more recently, tweeting that there remains “no objective evidence Empire was ‘evil.’” Conservative blog The Federalist used its review of “The Last Jedi” to mount a quasi-defense 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 a “Star Wars” for populist times and a kind of remake of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary that sides firmly with the left.
Luke Skywalker spends most of the film disparaging the importance of “that mighty Skywalker blood,” all while his nephew and apprentice, Sith, far-right failson (Kylo Ren) tries to live out the birthright-to-evil supposedly gifted from his grandfather, Darth Vader. Rey, grasping for her own prestigious lineage, wants him to teach her the ways of the Jedi, only to be told forcefully 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,” Luke tells us. The golden age of the Jedi — as seen in the prequels — helped sow the seeds for Vader and Palpatine’s reign, and 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 light sabers, and it’s 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 the child of “nothing” junk traders who, as foe Kylo Ren tells her, probably “sold her off for drinking money.” Rose apologizes 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 laborers, 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 color — not unlike the makeup of the American working-class. Rebel Admiral Leia Organa stays true to her roots as a class traitor and longtime consort to rebel scum: staying the course and boosting 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 through 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 — a former trash-picking drifter — to help lead the way forward alongside a fledgling young army of rebels, force-using, and otherwise.
You don’t need an encyclopedic 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 Obama era, in our case — can only stave off the Sith for so long before recreating the same flaws that let the Empire take power the first time around. The Rebellion needs to be reborn nearly wholesale to win anything but pyrrhic victories.
As self-styled #Resistance members are lifting up America’s political dynasties as the best hope to save us from Trump, knocking the Skywalkers’s 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. In the meantime, it’s hard not to watch the First Order picking off rebel ships and think of the first several weeks of the Trump administration; the onslaught of attacks on everything from immigrant rights to the environment. This is a long fight, and a lot of people will die. 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.
In the year since George Floyd’s murder, conservative news outlets have endlessly hyped distorted stories about violence at Black Lives Matter protests. Key videos they used come from a tight-knit group of eight young journalists.