We are the spark that’ll light the fire that’ll burn the First Order down.
Star Wars has always had a reactionary streak.
George Lucas mythologizes an eternal struggle between Good and Evil, expressed primarily through physical combat. While his protagonists wrestle with temptation, fall from grace, and find redemption, Lucas’s main interest is elite individual heroics from both Good and Evil leaders. He’s fascinated with the sacred Skywalker family bloodline, and while the overarching plot is ostensibly political (will the galaxy be a republic? Will it be an empire?), his battles aren’t decided by armies. They’re won by lightsaber duels and space dogfights between Skywalker family members – and by the refusal of his heroes to succumb to (even righteous) anger.
Lucas’s imaginary history is driven by individuals, not by masses of people. He shows crowds cheering when the Emperor is killed, but they play no part in either his rise to power or his overthrow. Star Wars embraces the conservative “Great Man” theory: history is a series of extraordinary individuals, imposing their will on basically passive populations.
This conservatism finds itself mirrored in the broader social dynamics of the Star Wars fandom. Geek culture self-consciously embraces commercialism, its participants gaining social capital by accumulating games, toys, and collectibles. Star Wars, of course, was always designed for toy merchandising, but its core fans aren’t children. Instead, they’re (largely male) adults who grew up playing with Star Wars toys and want to buy some nostalgia.
When JJ Abrams made The Force Awakens in 2015, he knew his audience. Nearly every scene re-staged something from one of the previous movies, to the point that he literally hired the same actors, 40 years later, to reprise their action-hero roles. As The Force Awakens ends (with Luke Skywalker making his entrance), Abrams sets up the plot to continue in the same vein for as long as the audience is willing to pay.
But that’s not what The Last Jedi delivers.
In every corner of the galaxy, the downtrodden and oppressed know our symbol, and they put their hope in it. We are the spark that will light the fire that will restore the Republic. That spark, this Resistance, must survive.
What’s the heart of revolutionary politics?
It isn’t liberalism’s nominal commitment to tolerance (otherwise, every HR manager would call themselves a revolutionary). It isn’t simply hostility towards capitalism, either (after all, plenty of fascists share that attitude).
Instead, to be a revolutionary means to “trust the masses.” Revolutionaries believe that the people make history themselves, without needing “Great Men” (or benevolent warrior-priests!).
The Last Jedi is radical because it uses reactionary source material to say “trust the masses.” Its main plotline follows the outnumbered remnants of the Resistance on a “long march” through space, pursued by their enemy, the First Order. Chafing under what they call a “cowardly” strategy, three characters (Finn and Poe Dameron from The Force Awakens and a new character, a mechanic named Rose) hatch a clandestine plan to sabotage the First Order’s flagship and allow the Resistance to escape. It’s the kind of long-shot heroism that, in another Star Wars movie, would have saved the day. In The Last Jedi, though, it fails – and when it does, it allows the First Order to discover and subvert the Resistance’s patient, unglamorous, and fundamentally sound escape strategy.
In parallel, Rey (from The Force Awakens) persuades a reluctant Luke Skywalker to give her Jedi training as she prepares to confront the main antagonist, Kylo Ren. Communicating telepathically, Ren convinces her that he knows who her long-lost parents are. But when she faces him in person, The Last Jedi gives them an exchange that no other Star Wars film could:
Kylo Ren : Do you know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known? You’ve just hidden it away. Say it.
Rey : [in tears] They were nobody.
Kylo Ren : They were filthy junk traders. Sold you off for drinking money. They’re dead in a pauper’s grave in the Jakku desert. You come from nothing.
Although Rey has been characterised as Ren’s “equal in the Light,” she isn’t a Skywalker. The Last Jedi repudiates the sacred bloodline. Rey has no aristocratic lineage or ancient prophecy about her birth, but for the first time in a Star Wars film, that doesn’t matter.
The saying, “A single spark can start a prairie fire,” is an apt description of how the current situation will develop. We need only look at the strikes by the workers, the uprisings by the peasants, the mutinies of soldiers and the strikes of students which are developing in many places to see that it cannot be long before a “spark” kindles “a prairie fire.”
As a film, The Last Jedi sometimes finds itself in an awkward middle ground. On the one hand, it has to maintain continuity with The Force Awakens (and the franchise in general). On the other, though, it offers an incompatible ethical and political sensibility. Staying true to the source material while turning it on its head doesn’t always lend itself to elegance, and at its weakest The Last Jedi makes unfortunate concessions. While it never reaches the depth of pandering of The Force Awakens, it still wastes too much screentime on “Easter eggs” and sequences rehashed from earlier Star Wars movies. Plus, since JJ Abrams is writing and directing the sequel trilogy’s third installment, The Last Jedi‘s innovations will likely be scrapped. Star Wars 9 seems likely to be another fan-pleasing, boilerplate nostalgia trip.
However, The Last Jedi has still pulled off something special. As the film ends, a group of enslaved children (who had earlier assisted Rose and Finn on their mission) tell each other about the survival of the Resistance. But the hope they draw from that isn’t a passive desire for rescue. The guerrillas of the Resistance depend on them, not the other way around. History belongs to the people.
That’s what The Last Jedi brings to Star Wars. That’s what we should let it teach us.