Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi below.
Spare a thought for the Caretakers. First introduced in the middle section of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, they’re a race of, as writer-director Rian Johnson put it, “fish-bird-type aliens” who live on the site of the first temple of the Jedi. It was long ago abandoned by that highfalutin’ order of warrior-mystics, and the place’s structures and texts would have crumbled into piles of profane dust if not for the habit-wearing Caretakers. They don’t appear to be Force-sensitive, themselves — they’re merely doing their job in a harsh and uncaring universe. At one point, aspiring Jedi Rey blows a hole in a hut, and we’re made to see just how irritating Jedi mishegoss can be for the Joe and Jane Lunchpails of the Star Wars cosmos. In that scene, we laugh not at the alien species’ adorable antics, but instead in solidarity with the concerns of these steadfast toilers in the service economy. To paraphrase Mick and Keef: Let’s drink to the salt of the Galaxy.
After all, that’s what Johnson does over and over in The Last Jedi. The Star Wars franchise has long been identified as populist art in the sense of its appeal to audiences: It’s what the industry refers to as a “four-quadrant” endeavor, targeted at anyone and everyone, and diametrically opposed to the gatekeeping snobbery of the art house. But for 30 years, we’ve loved a mythology that lionized troublingly elitist characters, organizations, and themes. Not so with The Last Jedi, which is the first politically populist film in the saga. It’s a Star Wars for the 99 percent.
The most readily available evidence is the revelation of Rey’s parentage. The Force Awakens shrouded its main protagonist’s background in mystery, merely telling us that she was abandoned on the armpit world of Jakku when she was but a wee lass. She spent her subsequent days waiting for her parents to pick her up while wondering who they might be. So, too, did we: The mystery of her mama and papa consumed geek speculation for two years. Star Wars was so wrapped up in legacy that they just had to be special folks from the series, right? Han and Leia? Luke and a hypothetical wife? Obi-Wan and a woman many years his junior? More immaculate conception from the midi-chlorians?
Wrong, wrong, wrong, and (thankfully) wrong. The answer is delivered by Kylo Ren near the climax of the picture: Her parents were random junk traders who sold her off. “You have no place in this story,” he tells her with the bluntness of a college rejection letter. “You come from nothing. You’re nothing.” But that’s all preamble to what he says next: “But not to me.” He invites her to join him in starting a new story for the Galaxy, one in which the burden of the tale we’ve been told is merely prologue to a world where an orphan who came from nothing can inherit the throne.
’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, as the Bard says. The previous eight Star Wars installments have spouted populist rhetoric while being built on twin narrative engines that praise the rarified few more than the teeming masses. The first and less obvious engine is the Rebellion and its inheritor, the Resistance. Sure, they’re movements that seek to overthrow fascist Empires and Orders. And yes, as we saw so starkly in last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the Rebels attracted a diverse array of species and skin tones. But note the individuals put in charge of these rages against the machine. Who runs the Alliance in the original trilogy? Mon Mothma, the privileged child of a political dynasty. Where is that movement started? In a gilded city apartment where senators converse not about proletarian revolution, but rather about holding on to the existing sociopolitical system — the Rebel Alliance is formally titled the Alliance to Restore the Republic. Who’s the first Rebel leader we meet? A princess. Who starts the Resistance? That same princess, operating a private paramilitary force. None of this is to say the Rebels and Resisters are in the wrong (though we should be wary of what we learn from their politics of violent anti-incumbency). It’s just that, up until now, we never saw them talk much about structural inequality.
That changes in The Last Jedi. Take the words of hardworking Resistance engineer Rose, for example. At one point, she speaks to Finn (who, to be fair, was established as a hero who rose from nothing in The Force Awakens, so we can’t throw that flick totally under the bus) about “the worst people in the Galaxy.” These loathed folks are not the First Order, surprisingly enough. They’re the rich. She speaks those words in the glitzy Galactic Monaco known as Canto Bight, where the pair go on a mission to find a high-class thief at a high-stakes table. The whole subplot is borderline socialist. We learn that, for the most part, the high rollers of Canto Bight have made their fortunes not through, I dunno, green-energy innovation, but rather through a trade that is unsurprisingly lucrative in the Star Wars ecosystem: war profiteering. These people are presented as scum not because they’re authoritarian ideologues. They’re scum because they’re capitalists.
We’ve seen occasional bits of disdain for the worship of Mammon in previous Star Wars episodes, of course. We’re supposed to love Han in no small part because he trades in his love of money for a love of the Rebel cause, Jabba the Hutt’s the worst kind of creditor, and Watto would fit right in on a Nazi propaganda poster about money-grubbing Jews. But those characters were critiqued for their individual actions; they weren’t presented as symptoms of an exploitative system writ large. On Canto Bight, we see that system elevating the wealthy at the expense of the underclass: child laborers and abused horse-creatures known as Fathiers. Before Finn and Rose escape that glittering nightmare of a world, they — uncondescending proles, the both of them — liberate members of both those groups. As the Fathiers run off, Rose implies that this is the true significance of their mission when she remarks, “Now it’s worth it.” In the movie’s concluding shot, we see one of those child wage-slaves coveting a ring that bears the Resistance logo, dreaming of a future where those like him will be freed.
That kid also happens to be Force sensitive, and when he looks up to the sky, we’re clearly meant to remember the skyward gaze of Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, way back in A New Hope. There, too, we saw a poor boy who wanted a better life. But Luke’s story has never truly been a meritocratic one — indeed, it’s been downright feudal. That brings us to the second elitist narrative engine that The Last Jedi works to dismantle: the Jedi in general and the Skywalkers in particular.
I’m not being radically original in pointing out that the Jedi are an undemocratic concept, but it’s a notion that bears repeating in this context. Think about it: They’re a secretive order that only trains the lucky few who are born special. Their holier-than-thou approach to life was most apparent in the prequel trilogy, where we saw their unelected leadership act as judge, jury, and executioner for whoever dared violate their Force-given laws. Sure, they always erred on the side of peace, but there were no formal checks on them and, at least in the movies, we never really saw them making much of an effort to better the lives of the Galaxy’s downtrodden. They were more interested in maintaining the status quo while sniping at one another in their extravagant private pyramid on the surface of a glistening ecumenopolis. We should still largely be on the side of the Jedi, but Palpatine honestly had a point when he told Anakin that the Order had become too powerful — after all, he would know, given that he saw fit to use their impressive might as a cudgel in the Clone Wars.
But even in the original trilogy, we saw the aristocratic shading of the Jedi. Sure, Luke starts out as a low-class nobody and rises up to become a leader and savior. But he wouldn’t have gotten to the top without familial connections. He gets drawn into the fray because his dad was a member of the elect and Obi-Wan believes it’s time to get Luke into the family business. His pop, Darth Vader, is the second-most powerful man in the Galaxy, and the most powerful one — the Emperor — sees the Skywalkers as the future of the Dark Side. Luke’s sister, Leia, is goddamn royalty and the leading light of the Rebel Alliance. And, as we learn in The Phantom Menace, Anakin/Vader was likely a creation of the Force, itself; a person without precedent. The Skywalker clan is presented as a group of VIPs and the pivot point for the entire universe.
The Last Jedi does a fascinating — if incomplete — job of picking all of that apart. Luke takes it upon himself to lob rhetorical abuse at himself, his fam, and the Jedi. When Rey presents Luke’s old lightsaber to him, his first act is to toss it behind him like so much soiled laundry. As we learn, it’s not just because being a Jedi Master exhausted him, nor because he made a personal mistake in training the kid who would become Kylo Ren. He’s come to think the Jedi were a bad idea that belongs on the dungheap of history. The essence of their crime? Entitlement.
“The Force does not belong to the Jedi,” Luke tells Rey during the period when he’s giving her a curious sort of training, one in which he seeks to teach rituals with the aim of proving them worthless. “To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity.” Later, he claims that the legacy of the Jedi is failure and — more important — hypocrisy. These were people who thought they were better than everyone else and ended up creating mass murderers like Vader and Kylo. What’s more, he damns himself for thinking the Skywalkers were special. He speaks sarcastically of everyone’s veneration of “that mighty Skywalker blood,” perhaps in a moment of meta-textual commentary on Johnson’s behalf. “I failed because I was Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master; a legend,” he concludes. He engages in the kind of relentless and egalitarian self-criticism that would’ve made Mao proud.
Of course, for obvious reasons, the movie doesn’t believe the Jedi and the Skywalkers deserve the guillotine. Luke gets over himself and saves the day in the end, and when he does so, we see this Chosen One wield a degree of mystical power never before witnessed in the Star Wars films. Prior to that, Leia escapes death itself in a similarly awe-inspiring display of innate ability. Kylo talks a big game about the end of history, but he’s still special by virtue of his own mighty Skywalker blood. That aforementioned last shot with the Force-sensitive kid implies that a new generation of Jedi will soon rise. Real-life lightsaber sales will still be robust in 20-odd years and youths will still imagine that Obi-Wan is about to show up and give one to them.
However, we have reason to hope that this populist turn will be more lasting than not. Johnson is working on a new trilogy that won’t center the Skywalkers, meaning that longstanding primacy of an elite bloodline could go by the wayside. When we leave off with the Resistance, nearly all of its leaders are dead and we’ve heard explicit talk about a mission to lift up the powerless, implying that we might see more on that theme in the future. Honestly, it’s long past time for such shifts in focus and ideology. It’s not like Star Wars is going to single-handedly end inequality, but it might as well at least stab in that direction. As Yoda puts it, “Failure, the greatest teacher is.” It’s nice to have a myth that acknowledges how much we need to learn from our own galaxy’s systemic failure.