[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi]
I remember watching Star Wars for the first time, a late night television broadcast next to a roaring fire, encouraged by my father’s teases that I’d be watching “the best movie ever made.” We all know how it starts, the quiet promise of far off worlds and ancient stories followed by a sudden blast of text and symphonics sure to capture one’s imagination.
Then came the opening crawl, a confusing concoction of names and scenarios meant to give audiences the barest of frameworks for the events they were about to follow. The first Star Wars remains a daring work of blockbuster cinema; few films in the following decades have ever dared to abandon audiences in a world so foreign for such a long time. Now that it’s become a cornerstone of pop culture, all the characters and situations from that story seem evident and obvious, but Star Wars has always operated on a fine line between giving the audience too much information and not enough.
The original Star Wars threads that line expertly, slowly revealing more about its world and the complicated politics that define it. Even from the first striking image, we get a sense of the story we are being told: a small ship flees from an overwhelmingly large ship that looms overhead. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the opening of Star Wars is just about priceless, but that’s not always been true for this series (particularly of late).
Scene by scene we learn about the galactic Empire and its fascistic grip on the galaxy, both through what people tell us about them and through firsthand experience. Even on a planet as remote as Tatooine, the Empire has its Nazi-inspired Stormtroopers locking down cities, executing aunts, uncles and jawas alike, and engaging in giant-lizard mounted search patrols, all while Star Destroyers loom overhead.
Later, a meeting between Imperial officials and Darth Vader confirms the end of the Republic, dissolution of the Senate and the Empire’s ultimate goal: centralized power, rule through fear and “order” across the galaxy. It’s an understandable political ethos, especially today, regardless of the knowledge that a dark wizard is secretly behind it all.
Meanwhile, a Rebellion has risen to fight the spread of the Empire. It moves quickly, strikes fast and recruits out from under the noses of the Imperial Academy. It operates with the ultimate goal of striking at the heart of the Empire and restoring a New Republic from its ashes. Its members believe in the values of the Jedi Order, now thought to be dead, and are inclusive toward aliens and women operating in their ranks (or so we gather over time).
The politics were simple, elegant, and obvious, a potent metaphor for any era. Anyone could go to any toy store and buy an action figure, clear on what it meant to be a Stormtrooper and what it meant to be a Rebel. As the series developed these political lines were expanded further. We learned about the Rebels’ fleet and of the Emperor’s truly evil intentions, witnessed the hostile takeover of Cloud City by the Empire (leveraging its power in a constantly changing deal) and how the Empire dealt harshly with innocent, teddy bear-like natives, and we ultimately celebrated their climactic defeat at the hands of the Rebellion.
And that’s where we left off before the start of this new trilogy of Star Wars films. After decades of theorizing, fan fiction and “Legacy” stories, The Force Awakens had the exciting task of updating fans of the series about what happened in the decades since we last saw our favorite characters and rooted for the Rebellion. Would we see a New Republic and what would it be like? Who would be the enemy of that Republic and what would our character’s places be in it? The opportunities were endless, with the possibility of giving audiences a brand-new vision for the series, but would also require a deft touch. Yes, the series would have to build on viewers’ knowledge of Star Wars history, but it could also do what A New Hope did: thrust us into a new scenario and slowly give us more information about what transpired to get us here.
As a huge fan of the series, looking back on the new films after the opening weekend of The Last Jedi, I have to admit an incredible frustration and disappointment in the result. While walking through my local Target, I could not help but feel like The Force Awakens had failed what I’m now dubbing the “toy test”: I couldn’t pick up a Star Wars toy and tell you who each character was and their political standings in the newest round of wars, as depicted in the films.
That’s not to say that all choices of political allegiances in these films should be binary: good versus evil; even the prequel trilogies, with their often overwrought delving into galactic politics, introduced the idea that perhaps this galaxy wasn’t as black and white as we formerly thought. What they should do is make sense, be consistent with what came before and presented in a way that audiences can follow. In both The Force Awakens and now The Last Jedi, I can’t help but feel that none of these are true, to the point that it undermines not only the stakes of these new movies, but also many of the wonderful thematics at play.
The opening crawl of The Force Awakens gave us our first cinematic look into what the galaxy had become in the years after Return of the Jedi. We are introduced, in full capital letters, to the FIRST ORDER, the REPUBLIC and the RESISTANCE, all of which apparently sprung forth from the ashes of the Galactic Empire. It’s a lot to take in, in Star Wars tradition, but the film does no work to fill in the gap and audiences’ expectations.
As viewers we never experience what it means that a New Republic exists and therefore can never really get a solid grasp of what they are fighting for; the only planets we see (Jakku, Takodana) are seemingly outside of the Republic’s jurisdiction. If not for a brief glimpse of Hosnian Prime, right before its destruction at the hands of Starkiller Base (more on that later), we’d never even have proof of the Republic’s existence. (Side note: Why are we able to see the destruction of the Hosnian system from Takodana’s surface? Are all these planets right next to each other?)
Then there’s the added complication of the Resistance, which The Force Awakens says was created “with the support of the Republic” and led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). The film does nothing to specify the difference between the Resistance and the Republic, so we must assume they are virtually one and the same and that the Resistance must be some sort of active army set against the First Order. It’s an unnecessary wrinkle in an already over-complicated setup, but easy enough to ferret out.
The First Order is something else entirely. The end of Return of the Jedi had everyone believing that if the Empire wasn’t ended altogether, it was reduced to a fraction of its former self: leaderless and crippled in every sense of the word. Now we are told that it’s become something else, the First Order, with an army of some size (comprising kidnapped children brainwashed into becoming soldiers), a fleet of ships, a Starkiller Base (much larger and more powerful than any Death Star) and led by a new Sith Lord named Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).
It’s a lot to take in and even more to accept at face value, especially since it seems to undo nearly all of the achievements by the heroes of the original trilogy. The questions about this new status quo for the Star Wars universe seem endless, starting with “How was this First Order allowed to rise and what are their goals?” Not everything needs to be preserved in stone, but for a change this sizable an explanation would go a long way toward making an audience’s investments seem meaningful.
With the New Republic controlling the galaxy and the First Order rising to fight them, it seems the tables have been turned. Are the First Order the new version of the Rebellion, a small band of fighters out to destroy a galactic order they disagree with? We never really find out, except that they seem to be the Empire redux, a sort of cartoonish and exaggerated, hard-right version of their former selves but without a clear sense of purpose, just the fascist iconography and penchant for wholesale slaughter.
Fans should know that trusting that iconography could be misleading, even the clone troopers were good guy remixes of Stormtroopers, so it’s not safe to trust the armor as any sort of sign of political ethos. Are they just out to destroy things or to restore “order” to the galaxy? What exactly about the Republic’s rule do they find so objectionable? Even Finn’s (John Boyega) departure from the First Order isn’t about ideology or factional allegiance, but about the specific orders he’s asked to follow through on.
However, before we know it, the Starkiller Base destroys the entire Hosnian system and what seems to be the core of the Republic, right before they are ultimately destroyed themselves at the hands of the Resistance. Snoke, his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) flee the exploding planet and the First Order seems to be retreating, if not heavily damaged, from their encounter with the Resistance.
The film ends with so many of our questions unanswered but with the promise that the next film could help fill in some of the gaps: Who is Supreme Leader Snoke and how did he spark the First Order into existence? Would the Republic and all the systems it controlled strike back at the First Order, a la The Empire Strikes Back? Would the destruction of the Hosnian system plunge the galaxy into chaos or would the Republic recover from such a blow? Would the First Order become emboldened by their “victory”? What is the relationship between the Resistance and the Republic?
Instead of answers, The Last Jedi doubles down on the confusion and outright ignores that most of these questions exist. The film’s crawl opens with “The FIRST ORDER reigns. Having decimated the peaceful Republic, Supreme Leader Snoke now deploys the merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy.” Apparently, the Hosnian system, which we barely saw, was the entirety of the Republic and the First Order was large enough to be ready, minutes later, to once again take control over the galaxy. How does this affect the rest of the galaxy? We’ll never know due to The Last Jedi’s decidedly limited scope.
Instead of the rest of the galaxy springing forth to get revenge on the First Order, under the Republic’s injured but far-reaching rule, no one seems to care (a point that becomes critical during the film’s climax). So why should we care? We spent the entire original trilogy caring about the political future of the galaxy only for it to become undone almost entirely offscreen. Not to mention that we’ve never been given time or reason to understand either the ethos of the Republic or the First Order. When Kylo Ren and the codebreaker DJ (Benicio Del Toro) suggest that both sides are evil and corrupt, how are we to know that’s not the case? The rest of the galaxy, based on its inaction toward these two small bands of people, seems to agree.
Yet, the entirety of the struggle in The Last Jedi counts on audiences caring about the success of the Resistance, which quickly seems to re-adopt the name and iconography of the Rebellion. But who are they rebelling against? A galaxy that doesn’t care?
The Internet has exploded over the lack of revelation about who Supreme Leader Snoke is, after being introduced as this awkward, shadowy, Emperor Palpatine-wannabe in The Force Awakens. But I suspect the furor is less over what his secret identity might have been and more about another missed opportunity to allow audiences to fill in the numerous gaps in the timeline, particularly regarding the rise of the First Order, the Sith and Kylo Ren’s turn in the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Couple this missed opportunity with the fact that everything we are being told to care about in The Last Jedi is built on the back of those desired answers and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
I feel Disney and Lucasfilm can no longer ignore providing these answers in the cinematic world of Star Wars, even if they plan on addressing them in other, less-followed parts of their transmedia Star Wars canon. The Last Jedi proved they desire to counter fans’ expectations, often in wonderful ways (Rey’s parentage was the only smart way to go with the character), but they can’t be subversive if they’ve built their foundations on a confusing and muddled swamp of galactic politics.
I had hoped that The Last Jedi would provide clarity and rationale that would allow me to reinvest in the politics of the Star Wars universe, but instead the suggestion seems to be that no one quite understands or cares about either the First Order or the Republic/Resistance/Rebellion. Am I the only one who feels like we are watching an increasingly irrelevant squabble between two factions that have long since forgotten their goals and are only left to faintly echo the past?
More likely perhaps is that the irrelevant squabble is none other than the one in my mind, as Disney rockets forward towards Episode IX and I’m left playing with my toys, confused and disappointed.