From Vietnam To Trump: THE LAST JEDI As Protest Film

#Resist the First Order.

***Caution: Last Jedi Spoilers Ahead***

George Lucas originally envisioned Star Wars ('77) partially as a protest against the Vietnam War. Rejected from the draft because he was diabetic, Lucas' space opera was part of a loose trilogy he'd planned that commented on the conflict in Southeast Asia - a triptych that began with American Graffiti ('73), ran through A New Hope, and included an unmade documentary-style anti-war picture called Apocalypse Now (the title of which came from his good friend John Milius). That last movie never happened - at least, not with Lucas behind the lens - and was passed on to his good friend Francis Ford Coppola, who'd given Lucas his first movie job ever on the set of the musical Finian's Rainbow ('68). Instead, we now have Lucas' Vietnam duology - a coming of age tale (Graffiti) set on the brink of America's loss of innocence overseas (not to mention the counterculture movement), and an intergalactic fantasy that featured (per Lucas' own '73 script note) "a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters."

This insertion of radical anti-US politics makes sense given the crew of New Hollywood rebels Lucas was pals with. After all, the opening title crawl was co-written by Brian De Palma (following his ruthless skewering of Star Wars' rough cut); a filmmaker whose earliest satirical works (Greetings ['68] and Hi, Mom! ['70]) played like angry American approximations of Godardian farce, complete with a vignette titled Be Black Baby, where a group of privileged white folks endure the "African American experience" by being raped and tortured in blackface. Though Star Wars would come to represent a new height in post-Jaws ('75) escapist blockbuster cinema, it still begins with the opening line "it is a period of civil war." These were young artists who were pissed off about a conflict that'd killed many of their friends and torn their country apart, channeling that rage into even the poppiest of output New Hollywood offered up. 

So, it should probably not come as a surprise to anyone - or maybe it should, given the Saga's evolution to Disney toy-selling advertisement - that the first Star Wars we've received following the election of Donald Trump (who enjoys constant comparisons to Richard Nixon) plays not only as a willful act of franchise upheaval, but social protest, as well. It's a movie that asks us to not only let the past die, but to "kill it, if you have to." Our heroes no longer hail from legendary lineage, but are children of junk traders, sold off for drinking money. At the same time, the elite are the ones leading a fleet of veritable Space Nazis, thrilled to decimate not only the Republic, but also put down anyone who objects to their growing First Order. Johnson's The Last Jedi is a space operetta for viewers who've lost hope in those who're supposed to have their best interests at heart, calling for resistance against foolhardy men and the worshipping of legacy. 

To begin to understand a protest movie, we must first know what it's protesting against. One of the main fan criticisms of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as a character is that he's an empty vessel - devoid of backstory beyond being a Force-sensitive dictator, molded in the image of Lucas' Emperor Palpatine. Following JJ Abrams' The Force Awakens, numerous fan theories cropped up, attempting to both explain and predict how he fit into the Saga's overall narrative. Taken on a surface level, Snoke's actually a perfect Trump stand-in - a megalomaniacal empty shirt, looking to rid the galaxy of every last inch of his predecessors' existence, flanked by two Large Adult Sons (Adam Driver's Kylo Ren and Domhnall Gleeson's Armitage Hux), who seek to earn his approval through victories over their perceived enemies in The Resistance. He demands absolute worship, despite the fact we have no idea what he's done to earn it at all. His vacuousness is actually purposeful, a leader who seized power, but now only wants to use it to destroy instead of create. 

The Last Jedi is an examination of pre-existing legend, and how getting caught up in the past can actually be damning to your future. Kylo Ren (a/k/a Ben Solo) is the descendant of both Light and Dark Sides of the Force, counting Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) as his mother, and Darth Vader as his grandfather. Only it's through a disenfranchisement with the Jedi that he chooses to idolize the deceased Sith Lord. Now, all that matters to him is destroying the past - beginning with his murder of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in The Force Awakens, and continuing with an attempt at killing Leia during an early fleet battle in The Last Jedi - while commanding respect from the current sitting Supreme Leader. When Snoke is finally assassinated by Kylo (in The Last Jedi's most breathtakingly thrilling action set piece), he offers budding Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) the chance to come rule the galaxy with him. It'd be a union born of rejecting that which came before, re-writing the future as they see fit.

Yet Kylo doesn't invite Rey to rule because they're equals. "You come from nothing. You are nothing. You have no place in this story," he tells her. Kylo's "gift" to Rey comes wrapped in a shiny sheen of condescension, as if there were no way a common person could ever fit into his blue blood POV of this universe. When combined with Snoke's earlier dismissal of Kylo - disgusted by his being beaten by a girl who's "never touched a lightsaber" - it becomes clear what sort of men look to rule this galaxy. Their future isn't female or earned, but male and predestined. The only way you slide into their narrative is if they let you. Had Rey taken Kylo's hand, they would never be "peers", because he'd still view her allegiance as guided by his stars. 

This rather overt moment of aggression on Kylo's part is only one of many that come from the men who inhabit The Last Jedi, on both sides of the Resistance. Flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) disobeys both Leia and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), holding onto the traditional viewpoint of what a top gun "heroic man" in his position does (flies into danger, kills the enemy, cost be damned, glory be forever). When Holdo takes over for Leia following their fleet's bombing, he instantly questions her from appearance on down - and then organizes a mutiny against her when Holdo orders an evacuation of their ship, hoping to flee and live another day. It doesn't matter that he knows her history as a combat-trained veteran. She denies him a say in what's happening. He's going to be the one to show this woman how the day is saved, not turn tail when the First Order's fighters are closing in. 

Finn's (John Boyega) aggressions are more passive. Though he spends almost all of The Force Awakens on the run, in The Last Jedi he's still ready to play the coward until he's caught by Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). It's during their journey to find a codebreaker - the rascally, lisped DJ (Benicio Del Toro), who betrays them to the First Order for the right price* - that Finn gets to make his triumphant stand against Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), finally confronting the regime he's been fleeing since we first met him. But this act of self-validation isn't enough, and hubris drives Finn down the same path as Poe, willing to pilot his glider into a battering ram cannon in order to save the Resistance on the salt planet Crait. At the last minute, Rose puts herself in danger, crashing her ship into his, letting Poe live another day. It's then that this woman bestows another myopic man The Last Jedi's greatest lesson: victory isn't all about destroying what you hate, but preserving who you love. To put it in modern political parlance: love trumps hate

While Johnson's Star Wars Episode was obviously conceived long before the Harvey Weinstein scandal rocked Hollywood, it's difficult not to watch this rejection of male heroics as a response to the gross tyranny of shitty men, and how they've helped cement the ways we view fantastical bravery in general. The Last Jedi is all about glorifying wise women, who've earned their sagacity through life experiences their lesser halves have yet to enure or properly digest. Every day, the news presents more alleged bad behavior on the part of male performers we've looked up to throughout the years - from old school titans like Dustin Hoffman to new Gods like Louis C.K. - that a celebration of enlightened ladies on a massive stage like Star Wars is wholly welcome. Sometimes the best moments of dissent come when we least expect it, and The Last Jedi packages a potent protest against this bullheaded patriarchy between its intergalactic dogfights and laser sword duals. 

Like all acts of defiance, there will be many who disagree with the political statements The Last Jedi is making. Many Star Wars die hards are already logging on en masse and even allegedly manufacturing bots to try and manipulate user ratings on review platforms like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB. They decry the choices Johnson's made, just as they labeled Rey a "Mary Sue" in The Force Awakens. "This is not MY Star Wars," they say, denouncing the movie's injection of a perceived "Social Justice Warrior" slant into its narrative and characterizations. But to damn Star Wars due to its radical politics is to misunderstand the franchise's history - the product of a pissed off New Hollywood maverick who likened his Empire to the United States, the Rebels to the Viet Cong, and Tarkin to Nixon. All Johnson's done is update these metaphors for an epoch dominated by a new empty American political vessel, his two shithead sons, and a legion of "nobodies" taking to the streets and Twitter to #Resist their horrid reign. To wit, there's nothing more Star Wars than that. 

The Last Jedi ends on the gambling planet Canto Bright - where Finn and Rose retrieved the codebreaker, and bequeathed an enslaved stable boy (Temirlan Blaev) a ring bearing the Resistance's bright red symbol. This is just one of the galaxy's many downtrodden, only he is special, even if we never learn his name**. With a wave of his hand, the boy summons his broom and starts sweeping the track; a passive usage of the Force that's no different than how Rey may have casually utilized the balancing power that flows between all things before embarking on her own rebellious journey. It's here that Johnson makes one thing clear: the war against fascists like Snoke, Kylo Ren, and the rest of the First Order isn't going to be fought by those who think they've been destined to thwart evil. Instead, it's going to be the poor, oppressed, and faceless who look to the stars, hoping to glimpse some spark of hope, even when it seems the universe lacks such a fire. May the Force be with them, always. 

*Enacting his own protest against the conflict by never picking a side, and profiting off both. "It's all a machine, partner. Live free, don't join."

**Which is apparently Temiri Blagg

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