The Last Jedi — the latest installment in the Star Wars series — premiered to mixed reactions from critics and fans last weekend. The film has many impressive scenes and action sequences. But critics argue that the plot is flawed in various ways.
The movie’s treatment of political themes deserves similar mixed reviews. Unlike most previous Star Wars movies, this one at least implies that institutions matter, not just individual heroics. But it also perpetuates Star Wars’ longstanding confusion about what exactly the “good guys” are fighting for. The series may belatedly value institutions, but it still gives no indication what institutions are valuable.
As The Last Jedi begins, the villainous First Order has almost completely vanquished the New Republic. Only a small Resistance led by Princess (now General) Leia Organa still opposes it, and even that remnant is on the verge of being wiped out.
The situation is in many ways similar to that which existed at the start of the original Star Wars trilogy: a small band of rebels oppose an overwhelmingly powerful empire led by Dark Side Force users — with Supreme Leader Snoke and Kylo Ren seemingly assuming the roles formerly played by Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader.
If anything, the Resistance may even be worse off than the original Rebellion was at the start of Episode IV. At that time, the rebels had a substantial fleet, and controlled a number of important star systems and planets. In The Last Jedi, they have been reduced to a much smaller force and suffer further attrition throughout the movie.
Institutions are more important than heroes.
Aaron Ross Powell of the Cato Institute describes this setup as a “betrayal” of the original trilogy, since all of the work of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo has effectively been undone. But it can also be seen as a lesson in the importance of institutions. Despite their courage and skill in overthrowing the Empire, our heroes failed to set up effective political institutions that could forestall the emergence of a similar menace in the future.
The New Republic seems just as dysfunctional as the old, and it allows the First Order to amass enormous power right under its nose, just as the Old Republic failed to address the threat of the Sith.
Despite his impressive mastery of the Force, Luke Skywalker failed to establish a new Jedi Order that can prevent powerful Force users like his nephew Ben Solo from going over to the Dark Side. His efforts to train Ben on his own end in dismal failure, as a result of which Ben defects to Snoke and becomes Kylo Ren — a development that parallels Anakin Skywalker’s becoming Darth Vader. Luke’s efforts to train Rey — the powerful new Force user introduced in The Force Awakens — are only modestly more successful.
No amount of individual ability and heroism is an adequate substitute for good institutional design. This message is further underscored by the chase scenes in which the remains of the Resistance fleet try to escape the First Order.
Leia and her second-in-command Admiral Amilyn Holdo repeatedly rebuke ace pilot Poe Dameron for his reckless “flyboy” ways, and his refusal to respect the chain of command. Holdo, by contrast, is praised for being “more interested in protecting the light than she was in seeming like a hero.”
As I have explained in earlier writings on Star Wars, earlier Star Wars films tended to neglect institutional considerations, and implicitly convey the message that we should put our faith in heroic figures like Han, Luke, and Leia, and that concentrated power is only dangerous if placed in the wrong hands. The Last Jedi at least partly corrects that tendency. It suggests that heroes aren’t enough. The Galaxy will not have peace, happiness, or freedom without a functional republic, and perhaps also a new and better Jedi Order.
We still don’t know what the Resistance is fighting for.
But if Episode VIII offsets the flaws of its predecessors in some ways, it perpetuates them in others. Like the rebels who opposed the Empire, the Resistance has little notion of what they are fighting for, other than simply opposing the First Order.
One Resistance fighter says that the movement will win “not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.” But what do they love, other than perhaps their friends and fellow fighters? Two lengthy movies into this new Star Wars trilogy, we still don’t know.
Is it the restoration of the feckless New Republic — the same one that failed so dismally? Is it some new type of political system? We do not know. Perhaps the Resistance members do not even know themselves.
Similarly, Luke Skywalker ultimately promises that he will not be the last Jedi. But what does that mean? Will Rey, or some other successor, establish a new Jedi Order? If so, how will it avoid the catastrophic errors of its predecessor?
The Resistance’s — and the filmmakers — neglect of such questions is paralleled by all too many real-world rebels, who sought to overthrow oppressive regimes without giving sufficient thought to what might come after — or to the possibility that it could be even worse than the current tyrants. Even in established liberal democracies, voters too often react to a flawed status quo by embracing “change” candidates without sufficiently considering whether the their proposed changes are actually likely to improve the situation, rather than make it worse.
Both many real-world rebel movements and those of the Star Wars universe also do little to question their own behavior. The Last Jedi is yet another Star Wars movie that largely ignores the glaring hypocrisy inherent in the fact that the rebels (and now the Resistance) are simultaneously freedom fighters and slave owners. They seek liberty for themselves, yet treat droids as slaves, even though the latter are as intelligent as humans, and clearly capable of feeling emotions such as hope, pain, and fear.
Unlike George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who at least recognized that their ownership of slaves was at odds with their professed principles, the Star Wars “good guys” seem oblivious to the issue — as – it seems – are all too many of the filmmakers and viewers.
I find your lack of continuity disturbing.
In addition to the renewed attention to institutional issues, The Last Jedi has a number of other interesting plot twists. Both Rey and Kylo Ren’s characters develop in surprising but effective ways. On the other hand, the sprawling plot has a number of turns that seem pointless, yet take up a lot of screen time.
In addition, there are some significant problems with world-building and continuity. For example, the first six Star Wars movies established that even highly talented Force users need extensive training to use their abilities effectively. But Rey demonstrates remarkable skill with the Force, despite having almost no training at all. Similarly, Rey, Kylo Ren, Luke Skywalker and Snoke use the Force to communicate with each other over vast interstellar distances that greatly exceed any previous such abilities that we have seen.
There are also discontinuities in military and technological development. The bombers used by the Resistance in the opening battle are not only more primitive than the craft we see in the original trilogy (set decades earlier), but even seem slower and less sophisticated than World War II-era bombers were. Either the filmmakers laid an egg here, or they want to suggest that the galaxy has gone through a period of severe technological regression!
And, if the Resistance seems to have no coherent agenda, neither does the First Order. Despite his pivotal role in the plot, we learn virtually nothing about Supreme Leader Snoke, his goals, or how and why he came to lead the First Order. We cannot even rule out the popular fan theory that he is really Jar Jar Binks in disguise.
Such flaws may not bother casual viewers, but might well annoy more committed science fiction fans. They remind us that Star Wars is less committed to careful world-building than rivals such as Star Trek and Game of Thrones. This problem may be related to the failure to think carefully about what it is that the rebels are fighting for, and why it matters.
Despite notable flaws, the Last Jedi is still an entertaining and in some ways compelling movie. And, like much of the rest of the Star Wars franchise, it teaches us some useful lessons about what not to do.