*The spoileryest of spoilers are here. Be warned.
There is no movie, really, that captures the zeitgeist of 2017 like Star Wars Episode VIII. Wonder Woman crossing No Man’s Land brought us hope, sure, but The Last Jedi has nailed the moment. An oppressive, Nazi-like First Order taking over the entire galaxy: check. Tiny flames of hope mostly found in the acts of women and people of color: check. Awesome battles on salt planets: it’s only a matter of time.
In my analysis, I’m going to discuss gender and class specifically. Neither of these characteristics is anything other than a cultural narrative that we engage in as a group. I’m not going to be discussing any essential characteristics of women, men, rich people, or poor people primarily because there are no essential characteristics of these groups. I am interested in the ways this movie construes gender and class and the way the movie deconstructs the narratives we tend to tell about gender and class.
So Wonder Woman was really cool. But the women leading the Resistance in Episode VIII… thoroughly badass. General Princess Leia is both the heart and brain of the rebellion, and she is quick to demote Flyboy Oscar Isaac when he disobeys orders. When she is put out of commission early in the film (and Admiral Ackbar is killed as well! Fare thee well, Admiral! It WAS a trap!), we discover that the chain of command falls to purple-haired Laura Dern (and perhaps the third in command is femme as well?). Purple-haired Laura Dern at once hatches and implements a clever plan to escape the First Order, but she makes a “mistake” that many women in leadership have made before her: she did not inform all of the male people in the chain of command, including those who had no need to know. Naturally, this caused Flyboy Oscar Isaac to assume that purple-haired Laura Dern did not know what she was doing and could not possibly understand the situation thoroughly. He was then forced to hatch his own completely unnecessary plan that endangered the entire Resistance.
This story is the most apt of allegories. It is entirely possible for many men or white people or hetero people to accept the leadership, the exceptionality, of one superior example of a marginalized group. President Obama- he’s so well-spoken! Neil Patrick Harris- So funny! Princess Leia- she is much beloved and once kissed Han Solo! What happens to that inclusive spirit when another woman or person of color enters the frame? The doubt begins all over again. (There is absolutely no need for a discussion of what Flyboy Oscar Isaac might have done had purple-haired Laura Dern been a man. This was the choice that the film made, and there is a reason. Fin.)
Once Leia was awake again, we were treated to some moving moments between two brave people who had everything to do with heroism and hope. Between the two of them, they save Flyboy Oscar Isaac by knocking him unconscious. They also discuss, privately, how much they like him (did we need to be reminded that they aren’t “man-haters”?).
Beyond Poe Dameron, there are two other stories of truth/untruth to consider in this film: Kylo Ren and the Master Codebreaker. We will start with the erstwhile Ben Solo, whose connection to Rey is facilitated by Snoke. Kylo Ren and Rey are connected to each other psychically in some really excellent scenes. Kylo Ren wants Rey to come with him and join him in the Dark Side. Rey wants just the opposite, for Kylo Ren to turn to the Light Side. Snoke is the out-and-out deceiver in this scenario, manipulating them both for his own ends. But Kylo Ren does a different kind of lying, absolutely negging Rey (“you are nobody in this story”) so that he can paint himself as her benefactor (“but not to me”). Rey, having felt connected to Kylo Ren, is betrayed by this version of her that he narrates, but she isn’t deceived. She takes the first opportunity she has to escape from him, and the next shot of their (apparently sustained!) connection is her closing the door of the Millenium Falcon on him.
The trend here is that the lies being told are not traditional full-frontal lies. They are insidious, narrative lies, the kinds of lies that trap even well-meaning #notallmen and white women who don’t believe in feminism but do believe in reverse racism. Men tell stories that work in their own interests and valorize them as the heroes in their own minds (both Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren are guilty of this), and other people must work to revise those stories. They are big stories, easy to tell and easy to believe.
So is the story told by the Master Codebreaker. The story told by the Master Codebreaker is that neither side is right. They are both about the same, and what matters is the material benefit accorded to him as an individual. The Master Codebreaker is the happily amoral capitalist who gives Rose her necklace back but betrays them all for a big pile of whatever counts for money with the New Order. It’s hard not to recall the Han Solo of Episodes IV and V, and not only because characters in the movie brought him up a trillion times. He was, you’ll recall, a happily amoral mercenary who shot Greedo in cold blood. Not all mercenaries turn out like Han, though; in fact, this film seems to intimate, most of them do not.
Wondering what Episode VIII really has to say about class? The story of the Master Codebreaker does not stand alone.
And Revolutionary Sentiments
Class has been a motif of Star Wars throughout all eight episodes so far, but Episode VIII goes the furthest toward delivering a real ideology. There is obvious class angst in Rose and Finn’s destructive jaunt through the One Percenter Casino. Their new hobby is certainly Marx-approved, and this sequence is as silly as it is revolutionary, depriving it of some of its bite. Fortunately, this sub-plot is not where The Last Jedi really finds its ideological footing.
When Rey asks Luke to explain the Force, I found myself sending up a traditional Jedi prayer: Please do not pull a Qui Gon and start spouting off about mitichlorians. Please. My prayers were answered! In fact, this moment gave us one of the really revolutionary truths of this Episode: the Force isn’t just for Jedi and Sith. The Force is in all of us. Luke rejects the elitism of the Jedi order and speaks back against a philosophy that would restrict the Force to certain worthy folks. The film itself substantiates this message for us in the world as well. One example is the early sequence with Rose’s sister, the doomed bomber pilot who reaches up toward the button that will release the bombs onto the First Order’s Dreadnaught. She cannot physically touch the button, but her need for it is great and her motivation for needing it is good (in the world of the movie). It falls, she barely catches it, and the bombs destroy the Dreadnaught. That is the Force being wielded by this pilot. The little boy at the end of the film, too, calls his broom with the Force. Then there is General Leia’s glorious space self-rescue. She regains consciousness in space and propels herself back to the ship using the Force; Leia, of course, is strong in the Force, but she is not a Jedi either. This movie is all about rejecting elitism and speaking back to power, though it does not deny the risk undertaken by the people who do so.
Even with those risks, often undertaken by already marginalized people, this film finds power in identity. Though Finn engaged in some heroism in order to save Rey in Episode VII, this Episode finds him ready to run again. It’s only when he finally battles his former colleagues and boss that he realizes what he is:
Phasma: You have always been scum.
Finn: Rebel scum.
In the battle sequence when the tiny group of Rebels must defend their tiny group with some kind of ships on sticks (???), Finn is even ready to sacrifice himself for the cause, finally reaching the understanding that the cause of the Resistance is bigger than he is.
Overall, I can why there are fans trashing this movie on Rotten Tomatoes or wherever True Fans go to Explain How Someone Destroyed the Franchise. People who identify strongly with the status quo, whether or not that system works in their interests, often feel challenged by these kinds of stories that valorize the revolutionary and condemn the patriarchy. This movie didn’t say to us the things we thought it would say, though, really, having watched Star Wars all along, you’d think we’d have learned that lesson. If The Force Awakens was J.J. Abrams saying, “I love you” to us, then with The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson is certainly replying, “I know.”
Bits and Pieces
- I see you: directed at my man in the First Order Infantry who comes from the Fox Mulder school of What is This Unusual Substance? on the salt planet. Glad it didn’t turn out to be any of the millions of possible substances that would have been fatal to you!
- Look, I am a teacher, and I am here to tell you that if you have mastered side eye the way Kylo Ren has done, you do not need to Force choke anyone.
- The porg controversy: calm down. They aren’t Gungans.
- On the topic of Gungans, I was super hopeful that Snoke would shake his head, and ears would come rolling out, and all would be revealed! Check out this old fan theory if you want Episode I to be well and truly redeemed. (Or not! You do you.)
- On the topic of Snoke, he spent the whole movie in a sort of gold lame smoking jacket, and, while that aesthetic did fit in with the film’s excoriation of everything related to the one percent, I did not find the jacket or Snoke to be sufficiently dangerous. Neither, for the record, did Kylo Ren.
- As a teacher, I kinda loved everything about Luke in this episode. “Every word you just said is wrong” is first class teaching. Plus, that moment, retold three times in the film, when Luke recognizes the destructive potential of Ben Solo is a powerful moment for a teacher. Paulo Freire, a great teacher and liberation fighter, felt that, if you really believe in freedom, you must accept it when your students don’t choose your way. That doesn’t mean that the teaching wasn’t worthwhile. It means that liberatory teaching has an emotional and sometimes a material cost. Anyway, I identified with Luke throughout the film. “See you around, kid.” Yeah. I’m putting that on my office door.