Warning: spoilers ahead.
Last night I ventured out into the cold evening, and rushed to the movie theater. Though this tradition is feeling ever-more anachronistic with each passing year, one can't help but stay up to date with our American civic religion—spending hard-earned cash on the annual mind-numbing Disney flick. Marvel, Star Wars, Marvel, Star Wars, and next thing you know, you're dead.
I'd heard the plebs thought The Last Jedi was terrible. Film critics on the other hand thought it was a solid improvement over The Force Awakens. That said, when it came to the important things, critics didn't pull their punches. For instance, they held Adam Driver's torso aesthetics to account.
For my part, unexamined, The Last Jedi seemed entertaining enough—though my expectations weren’t high. Moreover, it satisfied the main criteria for movies in the current year—it panders to every possible demographic—with attending merchandise, it celebrates weakness and failure—which everyone can relate to, and condescends to its core fan base—a masochistic bunch who'll buy the merch anyway.
Sure, it was a bit heavy-handed in its moral prescriptions. But subtlety is out of fashion these days. Even Chewie couldn't get a break—to the delight of vegans worldwide, he was shamed by porgs for his virile meat-eating.
Rian Johnson has been getting a lot of heat from fans for his Star Wars debut, but I contend that he is one of the few culturally conscious writers and directors of contemporary film. The Last Jedi casts the entire Star Wars series in a new light: as an allegory for the suicidal millenarianism of late American empire.
No longer is there the will to live, let alone dominate, that we saw in both the Rebels and Empire of the original series. No more is there a desire to maintain institutions or crush one’s enemies in galactic conquest, as there was in the prequels. In the sequels, it is the weak who inherit the galaxy, if only because they didn't get the memo on the glories of suicide. All that is left for the living are pyrrhic battles over deep-seated ressentiment—played out in the ruins of ancient civilizations. Even the presumed villain, Snoke, turns out to be a paper tiger. Nothing is coherent anymore.
Where the audience is inclined to underestimate the ramshackle protagonists, they're right. While the narrative overtly chastises you for this presumption, with a series of 'gotcha' moments that reveal the supposed competence of Resistance, the truth is belied by the results of the Resistance's 'successes.' Each battle surpasses the last as a more egregious loss of life, yet is more often than not hailed as a victory with lots of back slapping.
There are countless instances of pointless kamikaze—yet Leia describes said suicide pilots as being "more interested in protecting the light than being a hero.” According to this logic, once all the Resistance is dead, then light will be restored. The symbolic is more important to the modern individual than survival—let alone winning.
The angst of Kylo Ren, the son of Han and Leia, goes unexplained in The Force Awakens. He seems an emotional wreck, and it's almost laughable how pathetic a character he is. He will never live up to his grandfather Vader, who though evil, was part of the Star Wars equivalent of the greatest generation.
But The Last Jedi delivers the goods when it comes to Kylo. As it turns out, Kylo Ren is the only dimensional character left in the Star Wars universe. He is the very embodiment of millennial alienation. He rejects the Resistance—the remnants of the neoliberal consensus. This is, of course, because he was violently cast out from the Jedi by Luke. But he also has no loyalty to the First Order—the hawkish neoconservatives. They are but a means to an end.
On one hand, we have Luke expressing his own death drive, "I only know one truth. It's time for the Jedi... to end." For Kylo, the disillusionment is more totalizing. He tells Rey, in trying to sway her, "The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi... let the past die. Kill it, if you have to." Worded only slightly differently, the necessity of complete annihilation is nonetheless shared.
What in Kylo's life might have led him down this path? Let's review:
- His father abandons him for sex & thrills
- His mother abandons him for a job
- He's "raised" by the Resistance
- His first surrogate father, (Uncle Luke) tries to murder him for being too strong—for questioning the Resistance narrative
- His second surrogate father (Snoke) constantly mocks him for being a bastard
- His mother then sends an orphaned girl (Rey) to murder him
- When that proves unsuccessful, his mother sends Uncle Luke to finish the job, and says "I held out hope for so long. But I know my son is gone." This despite Kylo having just saved Rey not a moment before
Authority has long been absent in the entire galaxy, and promises to continue to be under the postmodern and unserious Resistance. But the modernist First Order, while interested in restoration, is equally toothless, and run by fools. In frustration, Kylo commits patricide—murdering Han. And even this turns out wholly unfulfilling. All that remains is narcissistic rage.
My sense is that Johnson is evoking a generational ideological shift back here on Earth in the past several decades. In the original trilogy, we have the archetypal boomers: Luke, Han and Leia; hopeful and naïve, faithful in America's post-war moral hegemony.
By the time the prequels come around, we have the vision of a more pragmatic Generation X—all they dare imagine is a boring galactic parliament featuring aliens from around the galaxy—a veritable Model UN, that so many bright Gen Xers participated in growing up. This Fukuyamaist managerial elite consensus is upset by a rogue plutocrat sith.
And today, all is lost—the millennials are the target demographic, and their utter impotence and dispossession leads them to lash out ineffectually, or sacrifice themselves as pawns for causes that are utterly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Surely Rey and Finn don't see themselves this way, and are meant to reflect the boomer archetype. But there is no actual source for their optimism. Their origins are in isolation and rejection.
Mark Hamill touched on our forays in the Middle East in a recent interview, "You know I thought, we've been in perpetual war, I thought at least after Vietnam we'll never get into another pointless war with no clear objective. We've been at war for 17, 18 years now?" Consequently, Hammil later says quite aptly, “This is not the Luke from the original trilogy. This is the Luke from another generation.”
It makes sense that Hamill is so distraught with Luke’s character arc—Luke is taking on the millennial frame. Hamill is the quintessential boomer—he's not equipped to deal with today's reality—and neither is Luke.
Unlike Hamill, we soon find the Resistance technician Rose, and defected First Order janitor Finn searching for a codebreaker to help them sneak into the First Order's ship for the purposes of sabotage. For their mission, they visit a casino planet, with an attending nouveau-riche clientele. Rose awakens Finn to how the gamblers got their money: "And who do you think these people are?” Camera pan to evil capitalists. “There's only one business in the galaxy that will get you this rich. Selling weapons to the First Order. I wish I could put my fist through this whole lousy beautiful town."
Shortly thereafter, Rose, Finn and a crew of slave children and alien race horses riot through the city, leaving a modest amount of destroyed property in their wake. We can safely assume that these rich vacationers had insurance, but no matter. Rose and Finn leave the scene with a smug satisfaction in their achievement.
The two end up finding a codebreaker—a Tyler Durden-like cynic. He tells them a much deeper truth than Rose was even aware of. "Let's see...this guy is an arms dealer. He made his money selling weapons to the bad guys. And the good ones. Finn, let me learn you something big. It's all a machine. Live free, don't join."
In other words, the same military contractors are supplying arms to both the Resistance and the First Order—not that this matters at all to how Finn or Rose react. They seem not to even have absorbed a single word the codebreaker said—It's lost on them that the entire Resistance/First Order conflict has been entirely meaningless. All their suffering for naught.
And in a matter of seconds, the brief scene becomes a footnote. Exploring this further would utterly humiliate the viewer, for it exposes fans as having invested in the sideshow of Star Wars universe. Hint: for Johnson, the villains were not the flamboyant Sith, but instead the unchallenged galactic military-industrial complex. The "War" in "Star Wars" were always just an externality. There never was a light or dark side. There was only ever power.
The sequels, and in particular, Rian Johnson's latest episode, have now fully deconstructed the Star Wars universe, and shown the characters and their motivations to be vacuous. The only character remaining who really grasped the depravity of the situation is Kylo Ren. Now that there is no hope for heroes (even the Resistance doesn't believe in those anymore—after all, heroism reinforces a hierarchy that must die), we await the climactic explosion of an end to this universe that it deserves.
More likely though, given that we're dealing with Disney, we probably won't get anything of the sort. And for that reason I now realize why fans of all stripes didn't like The Last Jedi. What they saw in the mirror was so horrifically disfigured and alienating that it couldn't be confronted. For though history is far from over, with everyone either too smart to continue living, or too stupid to die, it may be there's no one left with the will to make history anew.