The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s recent continuation of the Star Wars saga, has generated many new takes. Yet most focus on debates about aesthetics, storytelling, cinematography, fandom politics, and concerns with fantasy physics rather than the social and political commentary of the movie. Perhaps it’s because the main political messages of this installment were so heavy-handed and obvious. Not only do those evil arms dealers get rich while destroying the galaxy, they abuse children and horse-creatures to boot! (yawn)
Kylo Ren may be a little more conflicted and complicated than your average action-movie villain. But as the allegorical alt-right edgelord, his somewhat pathetic sad-boy histrionics struck me as similarly on-the-nose. Making the free-spirited hacker DJ come off like a selfish jerk felt like an unnecessary, but predictable, jab at the crypto-anarchist movement.
Hell, there’s a reason the most vapid, liberal anti-Trumpers lifted the name “the Resistance.” The new trilogy’s main plot has the kind of political points that appeal to people who think electing Democrats is going to save us from this hellscape.
There are, however, some truly interesting political dynamics at play in The Last Jedi. Beyond the battle between light and dark, the film explores the inner dynamics of resistance fights and the interaction of faith and politics in pretty exciting ways.
What makes the rebels good?
As in the standalone Rogue One, the Resistance is portrayed a little differently than the Rebels in the original trilogy. Instead of a unified, unproblematic front, our heroes are a bit more human. While this film didn’t go quite as far into the complicated dynamics of insurrection — Rogue One’s exploration of the line between resistance and terrorism has a special place in my heart — it did problematize hierarchy, bravery, and strategy in new and interesting ways.
David Sims explores the new dynamic around bravery in an article in the Atlantic, explicating the ways in which the Resistance’s motivations are more complex — and relevant — than in earlier films. He states, “Johnson roots [Finn’s] rebellion in Finn’s trauma (he was brainwashed into service by Phasma and her cronies as a child), but also in the oppression Rose shows him on Canto Bight, which extends beyond the heartlessness of the First Order.”
We’re probably supposed to view Finn’s attempt to desert as shameful, but it’s pretty understandable and I was sympathetic to his choice. After all, I’ve made similar decisions in my own life recently — choosing, as Finn did — to reverse them once I deepened my understanding of mutual oppression and realized that saving myself wasn’t going to be worth it if I left my friends to the fight.
This urge to flee is a central theme in the movie, and is a major contrast with the earlier films which portrayed the heroes as larger than life, beyond self-preservation, and purpose-driven. Natalie Zutter sums up the eerie familiarity of watching Resistance fighters desert over on Tor.com:
[W]hen you’re an adult, who can see where the cogs have gotten stuck in the gears and the system is churning toward collapse, there is a shameful relief in how The Last Jedi highlights that tendency toward the denial, the selfish self-preservation. This is how a Star Wars movie speaks to its audience in 2017…. Finn doesn’t choose to rejoin the system; he is stunned and dragged back into the fight.
Again, Rogue One did this a bit better, highlighting how people born into a rebellion — and those unable to flee — don’t really get a choice in whether to fight or not. But presenting the people of the Resistance as scared, confused humans, rather than confident and stable superhumans gives the film room to explore some really important themes of which I want to turn to now: the inner workings of military resistance and the role of faith in rebellion against oppression.
Military resistance necessitates some ethical dilemmas
Some of these are obvious: Murdering people is generally ethically wrong, unless you have a damn good reason to do so. But what I want to look are the issues that remain once you decide fighting is absolutely necessary. Military institutions necessitate some amount of hierarchy and some amount of anti-individualism (in the form of devaluing self-preservation). They value “bravery” in a way that’s not always productive.
The Last Jedi takes an interesting look at all of these issues. Vice Admiral Holdo’s portrayal is particularly amazing on this front. Her refusal to explain the plan to Poe seems mean-spirited at first. If she’d just told him what she had cooking, his kooky sub-plot wouldn’t have been necessary. Poor Poe! But on a second pass, her actions make sense for a military commander. Why the hell should she answer to him? He’s proven to be reckless and hard to work with. She outranks him and is, presumably, busy as fuck getting everything ready. Plus, she’s a new leader who probably feels the need to assert a little dominance over a frightened and demoralized crew that doesn’t quite trust her yet.
I don’t want to over-analyze this dynamic, but it got me thinking about a few things. Military infrastructure is especially prone to this kind of miscommunication/power struggle/misalignment of incentives. When you rely on one leader and follow her without question — General Leia Organa in this case — her death or incapacitation creates a power vacuum. The hierarchy also focuses at least some of everyone’s energy on maintaining their own place in it, over actual success. Did Poe hatch the plan because he really though Holdo couldn’t hack it? Or did he just want to regain his former glory and prove that he really did know best?
This sub-plot also did some beautiful things with misogyny (this probably deserves it’s own essay). To my embarrassment, even I hated Holdo at first. I was sitting there in the movie theater thinking “fuck, I didn’t trust this woman either.”
We’re told she’s a galaxy-famous commander with more than a little experience under her belt. Leia — whose judgement everyone trusts unquestioningly — names her interim Resistance leader. But she’s a woman, with pink hair and all. Maybe I just need to unlearn some more misogyny than other Star Wars fans, but it feels like this was intentionally set up to make you root for roguish, manly starfighter Poe until you realize he’s actually being a bull-headed jerk.
Again, militant organization lends itself to misogyny. Bro-y posturing has destroyed a good many real-world movements. If we’re indeed heading in an insurrectionary direction, accounting for and combating misogyny in the ranks is an enormous challenge we have to be ready for.
The dynamic between Poe and Vice Admiral Holdo also played with bravery in very a welcome way. Again there’s a lesson about misogyny in Poe’s assertion that Holdo is a coward for considering using the transports. But bravery isn’t always strategic. In fact, as we learn through Poe’s repeated failures and close calls, it’s often downright stupid.
Which brings me to my favorite line in the movie:
“We won’t win by destroying the things we hate—only by saving the things that we love.”
Sometimes the best you can do is hide in a hole and pray for each other. Our female leads all embody this well. From Vice Admiral Holdo’s clear-minded thinking in the face of sure defeat, to Rose’s decision that having Finn around is more important than destroying some giant cannon, and even Rey’s insurance that there’s still something to love within Ben Solo’s conflicted heart — and the Jedi religion itself. It’s the women of the Resistance that hold onto those things worth saving and show us that the revolution isn’t about tearing anything down, but building each other up.
That outlook takes a certain kind of faith. As does military resistance generally. It’s often not rational to put your life on the line for the sake of some political or moral victory. That’s why we have to brainwash soldiers to get them to fight in imperial wars. To get in the fighting spirit, rational decision making has to be replaced with something else. For real-world militaries, faith in the nation is what we’re talking about here. This is why nationalism feels and looks so much like a religion — it is. That’s what’s strong enough to override someone’s will to live.
Fittingly, a lot of the movie’s message drove at a similar point. Whether you call it hope, or faith, or “the light,” it’s that tiny fragment of possibility that keeps our heroes going. And this time, it’s distinctly religious.
Any revolution needs religious faith
“The Force” has always been a religious beast, with different films treating it with various degrees of religiosity and seriousness. In the original films, it’s a lot like Buddhism. Loosely spiritual, a lot of meditation, and enlightenment has to do with recognizing oneness and balance.
In the prequels trilogy, we get a bit more about the Force. It’s simultaneously science-ified with the introduction of midichlorians and deepened as a religion with ritual Jedi burials, a formalized Jedi Order, and a virgin birth as well. But there’s something different about this leg of the saga. Whereas earlier films were about achieving enlightenment through mental and physical discipline, and then about following codes and hierarchies to continue a tradition on a well-worn path, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have put a special emphasis on faith itself.
Faith is hard to define. It’s sometimes approached as a feeling, sometimes as a type of non-intellectual knowledge, sometimes as an action or set of actions. Personally, I’m partial to Soren Kierkegaard’s formulation of faith which is about personal transcendance more than anything else. This looks something like mystery and an openness to possibility. And it looks a lot like Master Luke transcending himself as his Force battle with Kylo Ren ends and, having achieved his purpose, Luke becomes one with the Force.
Rather than having faith in something or someone — a legendary Jedi Knight or, the Jedi Order — this kind of faith is the inclination to continue towards the unknown, trusting in divinity to lead the way. Hope is a close approximation, but faith is a bit more complex. It’s not just believing that everything will turn out okay, it’s continuing towards the future even while accepting that everything might not be okay.
When we meet Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, he’s living in an absence of faith. He’s seen what his attempts to continue the tradition of the Jedi have wrought. This is central to his later revival. In order to access the powerful form of faith that allows him to save the Resistance and, in doing so, sacrifice his own life, he has to lose the intellectualized, formalized trappings of a traditional Jedi Master.
Luke’s reasons for wanting to end the Jedi tradition are good ones. He sees that his attempts to train Ben Solo/Kylo Ren were misguided and arrogant. He sees that these old texts and traditional ways aren’t particularly helpful in battling a darkness that persists. He sees that the battle between the light and dark sides isn’t a war that can be won, but an endless process of making and remaking. As Jedi power rises, so does Sith.
This nihilism is familiar to many of us attempting to wade through the cycles of political life. The Rebels may win, but the First Order will follow. Luke may become a master, but his students will surpass his power. We may move on through World War II and then the Cold War. But fascism will rear its head again. So what’s the goddamn point?
This threat of nihilism makes faith a necessary component of the kind of continuous war anarchists are called to.
Religious notions can be messy when combined with political movements. Combining these areas of life means the actions of some shithead burnt-out Jedi can hamstring your political movement. The choices of the Jedi Council and Master Qui Gon Jinn’s decision to train up Anakin contributed materially to the creation of the Empire (There’s a kind of arrogance that comes with thinking you’re anointed). There’s even a fan theory that Snoke’s First Order is indeed the “first order” of Jedi, that Snoke himself has been reborn many times and was originally the first Jedi knight. Religious power is a dangerous thing.
And yet, it’s also the only way forward. Tellingly, Luke’s stance on ending the old ways to make space for a new world mirrors Kylo Ren’s. In killing Snoke and burning the Jedi temple, Luke and Ren are acting in concert to deny the natural cycles of light and dark that have existed through all time.
I had one friend point out how much more mythological this particular Star Wars movie was. I’d agree. The Jedi religion here is not about self control or tradition built up over years. It’s opaque and mysterious and fraught with danger. You can’t access the light side of the force without engaging the dark as well.
Thankfully, Rey is undeterred.
Rather than fearing and shying away from her darkness and that in Kylo Ren, she embraces it, goes deeper, and finds the light that’s there as well. This is faith. “If you only believe in the sun when you can see it, you’re not going to make it through the night.”
This marriage of light and darkness is central to real-world faith as well. Insurrection takes us to dark places. Refusing to access that revolutionary spirit because its shadow scares us, does a disservice to our future. The light is there as well as the dark and to stop fighting in the face of moral complexity — in fear of our own dark potential — is the truest face of cowardice.
The Last Jedi brings this constellation of ideas — about bravery and cowardice, about moral ambiguity, faith, insurrection, and crucially sacrifice — into brilliant interaction. The political and the spiritual are wrapped up tight, even more closely than in previous films. That gives the story a power and relevance that the strikes through the ham-fisted main plot.
Faith is risky, but it’s not flat boldness. Faith is ambiguous, but there’s still right and wrong. It’s the recognition that the way forward is not through smashing and bombing, but something much more tender and loving. Faith is about seeing past yourself and your desires and your thoughts and your being to the whole beautiful, mysterious, complicated tapestry of life.
Faith isn’t chosen and this is what separates it from ideas about hope and bravery that are self-directed. Faith is about following the light where it leads — or even being dragged along by it — because it’s right and you’re wrong, and your will alone doesn’t really matter.
Faith is what keeps us going, resistance fighter or no, and just as the world of the Last Jedi needs faith to see tomorrow, we do too.