More on The Last Jedi. I’ve been trying to distill my reaction to something more concise. Here it is.
The original Star Wars films valued the following:
- Good and evil
- Social scale
This new film concerns itself with:
- Irony and cynicism
- Shades of gray
Let’s unpack this a little bit more.
The original films played it straight with the idea of edification and teleology, taking for granted and exploring an essentialized understanding of good and evil as phenomena linked across social scales. In this relationship, some people—people who are simply more than or better than others—have particularly important roles in an all-encompassing story whose consequences will far outlive them, making their choices and behavior evidently more meaningful than most—which is shown as tragic but also necessary and as the way things have always been.
The most recent film is cynical about both the ideas of edification and teleology, in the traditional senses of these terms. It consciously rejects essentialized understandings of or even a belief in good and evil, particularly at the individual scale. It also rejects the idea that anyone is of greater importance in the grand scheme of things than anyone else. Nobody is “more than,” and the important things about individual choices aren’t anything to do with how they answer to history, but rather how they answer to themselves and their immediate interlocutors. Answering to history is what people who are too full of themselves do, and is the epitome of self-granted privilege.
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When put this way, it’s clear why some are calling this the “social justice warrior” Star Wars.
Lucas’ vision has always been a highly conservative, ultimately classical one, in a sense a battle of the gods over the world inhabited by the non-gods and an exploration of what it means—and how hard it is—to be a god, destined to sacrifice yourself to your innate greatness in one way or another for those who are simply not as great.
But Johnson’s vision is progressive and contemporary. There are no gods, and the idea that there are is little more than false consciousness. What it’s hard to be is a regular, rank-and-file nobody-in-particular messed about by people who imagine themselves to be better than anyone else and who take liberties as a result. They’re not making sacrifices so much as they are the beneficiaries of privilege who as a result have mistaken themselves for gods and who don’t like losing it. But they have used said privilege poorly in ways that have harmed others, even while clinging to it, and the potential for this harm is why privilege is unfair and should not be allowed to go on. They imagine “history,” which doesn’t exist, all while trampling on “personal stories and experiences,” which are all that matter.
In a very real sense, Star Wars has been the last pop-cultural holdout of a way of looking at the world that takes much from religion and traditional Western values and cosmology, and that has seen these things as ennobling.
But Star Wars has now converted to the contemporary side—democratic, individualistic, anti-privilege and anti-elite. In a very real sense, Star Wars has taken up the culture wars, against a unified understanding of history, against religion, against the traditionally privileged, against nobless oblige and the very ideas of “ennoblement” and “edification,” belief in which has become a sin. It is very much on the progressive identity politics side of things.
In short, what is the true false consciousness? Is it the idea that good and evil don’t exist and thus don’t have to be dealt with in the end? Or is it the idea that they do and that some are called to do this dealing?
Here, “fulfill your destiny” has been traded in for “check your privilege,” Wagner and the classics department for Octavia butler and cultural studies. This is bound to generate a decent amount of resentment, even if people aren’t clear on why, particularly given our political moment in the world.