Christopher Machell Features

“Let the past die”: the politics of legacy in The Last Jedi

Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi ahead

Star Wars has always been about cycles – fathers and sons, apprentices and masters, redemption and renewal. When Obi-Wan Kenobi confronts Darth Vader in A New Hope, Vader tells him that “the circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner, now I am the master”. With The Empire Strikes Back came the revelation that Vader was really Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father, leading to Luke’s quest in Return of the Jedi to save the soul of his father. In resisting the temptation of the dark side, the son redeems the sins of the father.

The Force Awakens, too, emphasises the cyclical nature of Star Wars by introducing a new cast in a story that consciously echoes A New Hope: for Jakku, read Tatooine; for Starkiller Base, read the Death Star. Indeed, many criticised J.J. Abrams’ revival for hewing too close to the original formula. The Force Awakens was fun in execution, but conservative in ambition.

The Last Jedi disrupts the narrative conservatism of The Force Awakens by rejecting the cyclical legacy of the series. Instead, the film draws out the conflict between the old and new cast. This inter-generational conflict is the central theme of The Last Jedi, its core thesis being a rejection of the old cycle – a fundamentally political, even radical statement. This has upset some fans who were expecting answers to Rey’s parentage or Snoke’s origins; tellingly, both of these questions are rooted in ‘origins’ and speaks to a fundamentally conservative preoccupation with the past.

Part of the brilliance of the original trilogy is that it closed a circle that we had never seen opened; after witnessing the redemption of Anakin, his rise and fall were left to our collective imagination, with the past concealed behind a curtain of imaginative potential. The real story, by implication, was the here and now – the fight against the Empire and the redemption of Darth Vader.

Of course, that was all before the dark times, before the prequel trilogy. Yet, as rightly derided as those films are, they reinforced the cyclical themes of the classic films. Since the revival of the series with 2015’s The Force Awakens, there have been attempts to rehabilitate the prequels; it’s been noted that Adam Driver’s portrayal of Kylo Ren is similar to Hayden Christensen’s whiny Anakin, and Jimmy Smits’ brief appearance as Bail Organa in Rogue One offered a surprisingly nostalgic thrill.

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Indeed, though the execution of the prequels may be substandard, their central premise of cyclical history resonates with the series’ broader themes. Here, the old masters are re-imagined as headstrong apprentices, while Lucas consciously designed story beats and visual motifs to rhyme with the original films. The Emperor’s throne room at the end Return of the Jedi is replicated in the opening of Revenge of the Sith; the lighting of the climactic battle in Attack of the Clones is similar to the equivalent in The Empire Strikes Back; the motif of severed hands is carried over and comes at crucial moments in character development.

The Last Jedi, too, references its own legacy – Luke’s exile consciously echoes Yoda’s in The Empire Strikes Back, and the mirror cave sequence is a visual quotation of Luke’s symbolic fight with his own dark side on Dagobah. Yet even here, our expectations are inverted: unlike Yoda, Luke is not waiting to for the Jedi to return: he has exiled himself to die. Similarly, the mirror cave offers a kind of anti-revelation – we expect answers to Rey’s origins but are instead given further obfuscation.

In neutralising the ‘mystery’ of Rey’s parents, The Last Jedi rejects the conservative past to instead look progressively to the future. The central conflict in the film comes not from the old dichotomy of light versus dark, but from the young being set against the old. Almost every relationship in the film can be defined along these lines: when Rey meets Luke she expects a Jedi master to train her, but instead finds a cynic broken by time, obsessed with the failures of the past and rejecting the needs of the present. Hot-headed Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) cannot see beyond his reverence for Leia Organa and as a result clashes with Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo. Indeed, if anything Poe is too concerned with the immediate concerns of the present while Holdo’s plan to escape to the rebel base is about securing the long-term future of the Resistance.

On the dark side, Supreme Leader Snoke dismisses Kylo Ren as a child in a mask, bested by a girl who had never even held a lightsaber. But in dismissing Kylo, Snoke blinds himself to his apprentice’s increasing resentment and ultimate betrayal – a pattern that historically defines the sith and dooms them to endless failure. Kylo’s offer to Rey to let the past die is an attempt to break the repetition of this destructive cycle but his invitation to ‘create a new order’ paradoxically echoes the false promises of the past. Kylo’s failure is his belief that he is creating something new while repeating the same mistakes, something that many of the alt-right fanboys posting sexist and racist comments about the film’s cast would do well to learn.

Indeed, the most radical element of The Last Jedi is that it is rooted in our contemporary political context. Born from the ashes of the fascistic Empire, the rise of the First Order mirrors the rise of the so-called alt right – the whinier (though no less dangerous) online version of the far right. The screeching, insecure General Hux is practically the poster boy for the basement-dwelling Men’s Rights Activists bashing out their self-hating vitriol on Return of Kings. Meanwhile, the political establishment sets the interests of the old against those of the young.

While the legitimate crises of the millennial generation are dismissed with memes about avocado toast, politicians cynically appeal to older generations with nostalgia for a past that never existed. In radically rejecting the cycles of the past, Rian Johnson lets the scales of nostalgia fall from our eyes to embrace the future. In so doing, he has made The Last Jedi the most explicitly political Star Wars film to date.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell