This piece is in many ways the inverse of my piece on Deadpool as the perfect postmodern movie. Star Wars did (most) everything wrong that Deadpool did right when dealing with our contemporary postmodern zeitgeist. Whereas Deadpool wasa postmodern triumph, the new Star Wars trilogy is a postmodern disaster. This review will look at Episodes 7 and 8 (The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi).
Bricolage, Scavenging and the Wreckage of the Star Wars Cinematic Universe
In Episode 7 The Force Awakens, the first scene in which we meet Rey (the one in whom the Force will awaken) she is scavenging in a junk pile on the desert planet of Jakku. She ekes out a living selling scrap metal from the wreckage of an imperial star destroyer, a remnant of the earlier films. This is our first main clue of what is to come in the rest of this film as well as in Episode 8: wreckage and seeing to reuse old scrap parts. The old scrap parts in this case being Star Wars Episodes 4-6 (A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi).
In postmodern thought there is the notion of bricolage. The idea is that we live in the end of history, in an era when all mythology and modernist dreams have died like a broken down Star Destroyer. There is nothing new to be created. The postmodernist, as a bricoleur, must simply create hybrid composite products from whatever refuse, garbage, and broken bits are lying around.
Rey’s initial entrance in the Galaxy is as a bricoleur. She signifies that these Star Wars films are not going to create anything new but rather simply recycle or re-purpose the older Star Wars mythology. A mythology that has decayed—as signified by the Star Destroyer and later the broken down Millennium Falcon—in the subsequent decades both in the timeline of the Star Wars Universe but also in our “real” world timeline. It’s about 30 years in both cases.
The Force Awakens continually tries to pitch itself as basically a reboot of A New Hope—in ways that become very tiresome by the end. Episode 8 The Last Jedi similarly tries to pitch itself as the second coming of Empire Strikes Back and fails spectacularly in so doing.
But all of it, as it shows itself right near the beginning of the film, is simply scraping out the hull of a broken down dream. There’s no creative imagination. It’s cynicism, decay, rot, and the end of history come to Star Wars.
Doubling & The Star Wars Universe
Another hallmark postmodern literary technique is doubling or self-referentialism. In Deadpool this is done largely tongue-in-cheek with all the fourth wall breaking and meta-irony. In Star Wars it’s far less humorous; it’s much more grim and self-inflating. A further angle to the sense of decay, broken down collapse, and hollowed out remains of a one-rich mythology comes in the return of the main characters from the previous films along with their awkward, slow, at times even cringe-worthy performances.
Before Carrie Fisher’s tragic and untimely death each film in the new trilogy was intended to be given over to one of the Triumvirate of the main Star Wars canon. Force Awakens: Han Solo. The Last Jedi: Luke. And Rise of Skywalker (Episode 9) was supposed to be Princess Leia’s film. This repetition is like a series of films stuck in planetary retrograde. They can’t escape the tractor beam of the old films. They hang like an Albatross around the necks of these films.
Compare that burden to what I consider to be the best film in the Star Wars Canon after the original three: Rogue One. Rogue One is excellent because it’s self-contained, it develops new characters. The plot is tight and it extends an angle or dimension of the overall storyline in a really exquisite way. (The Clone Wars and Rebels Animated TV series could also be cited in this regard).
It’s too bad really because I do believe the younger actors in the newer films were interesting selections and their characters have real potential: John Boyega’s Finn, Oscar Isaac’s Poe, Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. But they are constantly overshadowed by the haunting spectral-like figures of Harrison Ford/Han Solo, Carrie Fisher/Leia (now sadly literally a haunting presence), and Mark Hamill/Luke Skywalker.
So the movies fail in adequately honoring and yet also moving beyond their past which is unfortunate. But, especially with Last Jedi (Ep. 8) we see a complete and total failure of dealing with the present human world concerns infecting and distorting the franchise.
Galactic Gender Wars
Zizek famously quipped that we have all these movies about the end of the world but never a movie about the end of capitalism.
In a similar vein Star Wars takes place a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away but it’s basically having Facebook gender fights from 2017. We can’t imagine a world without capitalism (a la Zizek). We also can’t imagine a world without alt-right vs. SJW gender war combat apparently either.
One of, if not the main theme, of The Last Jedi is the notion of sacrifice. The movie begins with Poe leading a charge on a First Order fleet seeking to annihilate a dreadnought. The attack is a Pyrrhic victory. Only one of the Resistance bombardiers make it to the attack point. The gunner on the ship Paige Tico sacrifices herself to destroy the dreadnought. This is a crucial overlooked moment in much of the online vitriol and controversy around the film.
The film will essentially argue that there is a form of “feminine power” that is different than classical male, sacrificial heroic martyrdom and that for the Resistance ultimately to be successful it must be led by this feminine power. Except as we see Tico’s death is precisely the kind of heroic, self-sacrificial martyrdom (as is Vice Admiral Holdo’s [Laura Dern] kamikaze mission later doing exactly the same thing.)
This (supposedly) feminine power is primarily embodied in Leia. Leia (aka General Organa) demotes Poe and tells him he needs to get “his head out of his cockpit”. This is a classic postmodern theme of the critique of patriarchy and the feminist romanticization of matriarchy—though as I've written before it’s not based in a deep, grounded understanding and praxis of actual matriarchy. This is not surprisingly what caused so much push back from the alt-right to the film.
Whereas The Force Awakens was caught in the attempt to retrieve/rescue/reuse the scraps from the older Star Wars mythology, The Last Jedi goes full on postmodern deconstruction without ever deconstructing it’s own deconstruction and contextualizing it’s own contextualization as I’ve written elsewhere here on the site.
The male (or the masculine principle if you will) is thoroughly savaged in the Last Jedi. Poe constantly gets criticized by Leia and by Vice Admiral Holdo. Near the end of the film Finn seeks to kill himself in order to destroy an enemy ship but he is prevented from doing so by Rose Tico—Paige’s sister. Her sister is allowed to kill herself for the cause but not Finn.
But nowhere is this attack on the male as complete as it is in it’s terrible rendering of Luke. Recall that Luke saw that there was still good in Vader when no one else believed or could sense it. Luke was willing to lay down his life and allowed himself to be mercilessly tortured by Emperor Palpatine in order to force a decision point in Anakin/Vader. As Anakin says afterwards, Luke saved him. Luke defeats the Dark Side and brings balance to the force by redeeming the good in his father.
That is Luke’s character arc. And then for no apparent reason—according to the logic of the films—at the first sign of some growing dark side/evil in Ben Solo he, Luke, decides to kill him! The guy who saved Darth Vader and turned him back to the light side. That guy is going to murder his nephew. In his sleep. Even if it’s only a momentary slip, really?
And it’s this Luke who faces down Palpatine and Vader alone who becomes terrified and afraid of power along with some darkness in Ben (and later Rey as well). WTF??? Luke Skywalker is now a would-be child murderer? It makes no sense according to Luke’s character arc but it makes perfect “sense” according to the ideology of the film in which all males and masculinity as such is in for critique as inherently pathological and deficient. Luke therefore gets put on the chopping block.
Much like the Force itself, postmodernism has a light side and a dark side. Or to be more precise postmodernism has a shadow & pathological side. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi fall into all the traps of the shadow side of postmodernism.
At this point the movie is a total catastrophe. There’s a few redeemable moments in the film (which we’ll get to in a second) but the whole thing is really collapses in on itself in ideological stupidity.
I think these movies were doomed from the moment Disney (and later J.J. Abrams) abolished the Timothy Zahn Star Wars novels. While the novels had their moments of jumping the shark there was something really interesting about them. Namely they explored the ambiguity of trying to create something, the complexities of power, and the tendency towards corruption.
Tolkien, for example, began to write a further story of Middle Earth after Aragon’s kingship. He literally couldn’t do it it sickened him so.
As long as the good guys (and gals) are heroic rebels fighting against a cold, impersonal, fascistic machinery of Empire then it is a simple tale. Beautiful in many respects but hardly complicated. But what happens when the Rebels win and become the government? That is what Zahn’s book began to detail. What happens when the Republic attempts to be reformed and corruption begins setting in? Zahn also flipped the script by exploring Admiral Thrawn’s insurgency against the Second Republic (a much more genuine and creative postmodern inversion by the way.)
In a similar way, The Clone Wars animated series does a brilliant job of showing how the 1st Republic became so thoroughly corrupt and the Jedi order so militarized that they sowed the seeds for the Galactic Empire. Emperor Palpatine ran the ultimate psychological operation on the Jedi—he controlled the dialectic by funding both sides in a civil war and using that mayhem to invoke emergency and later dictatorial powers. This was a story meant to be told in Episodes I-III but those movies really failed in that regard.
Liberals and leftists often cite the statement that they want to “speak truth to power.” This statement by definition means that they hold no power and worse do not want to hold power. What about being power(ful)? What about speaking Truth as Power?
The left increasingly sees power as inherently corrupted and they don’t want to get their hands dirty, rather content to stay with their moral purity and criticize from the sidelines. Always the Rebels, never the Masters of their own fate.
This new trilogy could have told a very different tale. One that doesn’t recycle the old evil Empire blowing up planets (which apparently even mid-level imperial bureaucrats realize is a farce). One that dealt with the ambiguities and ambivalence of trying to govern in a way that is not corrupted like the 1st Republic nor fascistic like the Empire. But that would not have fit the easy good guys vs. bad guys desires of most of the audience and the studio executives so instead we got this mess.
That also wouldn’t fit with the left’s inability to think any longer about an alternative to capitalism (Zizek’s point). Something beyond identity protests and fetishes about temporary autonomous zones, nomadic Multitudes, carnivals, political correctness, moral and political purity codes, social justice warriorism, call out cultures, and the all rest.
Against it’s better (or perhaps I should say worse) inclinations the film weirdly offers a view into a potential way out. I say potential because it’s not clear that it is a true way out but perhaps it could be.
Rey and Kylo Ren’s connection throughout the film points to another (potential) way.
When Rey meditates she experiences balance in the Force. Life and death, which gives rise to new life. Peace and violence. Light and dark. The “dark place”, as she names it, calls to her. She later visits this dark place, believing it will reveal something to her, but in the end it doesn’t. It is simply a place of narcissistic isolation.
The Force, in other words, is not itself sufficient. Certainly not for the fraught question of politics. The Jedi created a religion of the Light Side of the force and became dogmatic. They were meant to be guardians but became a militarized order of stern warriors. The Sith created a religion of worshiping the Dark Side only to be consumed by it’s negativity. The Jedi represent growth without death—namely cancer. The Sith in contrast are viral parasites—they have no life of their own and must feed off the life force of others. The Republic and The Empire are social externalizations of the total failure of the Jedi and the Sith.
The Empire is a failure. The Republic and the Resistance are equally failures.
This bring us to the scene in the throne room, for my money, the only worthy scene in the film.
The only one (strangely) who realizes the failures of all sides is Kylo Ren.* Rey's view at this point is arguably still quite small—turn Kylo back to Ben and thereby to the Light Side and win the war. Kylo however sees the absolute failure of everyone involved.
Kylo says that all of it should be left to die. The Jedi, The Sith, The Resistance, all of it. He asks Rey to join him. It should be noted here that Rey’s name of course means King (though she is a woman). She is here being invited symbolically into an alchemical marriage to become Queen and Co-Ruler with Kylo.
Kylo simply says they can bring a new order to the galaxy. Rey automatically assumes he means not a really new order but the same Imperial Order with a different guy on top. Though in the scene itself is not clear that that is in fact what Kylo intends. It could be that is what he meant but it also might be something else. Kylo never gets a chance to lay out what this new order would entail.
Rey and Ren fight over the lightsaber—the one that previously belonged to Anakin and later Luke—and the lightsaber is split asunder. Rather than the bringing together of the dialectic into some new possibly creative other way, the old order of Light vs. Dark and Dark vs. Light returns. In the next scene when General Hux inspects the damage Kylo force chokes him and clearly has become a Sith, after having just said the Sith should die out.
Had Rey accepted his invitation it is not at all clear that Kylo would have gone in that direction. Given her choice we’ll never know. I think the director wants us to believe she sensed rightly and made the right decision and that Kylo’s aim was always pure power and control. But the scene itself I would argue is actually quite ambiguous in that regard.
When you watch Episodes 1-6 in chronological order (of the Star Wars Universe, not their public release), you see that Anakin-Vader is the real hero. He is the one prophesied to bring balance to the Force which he does, though not in a way expected by any of the Jedi. He does it by coming to embody both the Light and Dark Sides and transmutes or redeems the Dark Side through love within his own being.
Episode 7 Force Awakens shows very early in the film that this balance was fragile and rather quickly came unglued. Rey’s relationship to the Light Side is problematic in the film and Kylo Ren was excessively “emo” in that film, showing the agitation and dysregulated nature of the Dark Side. Episode 7 shows that the individual path of Alchemical Marriage within one being of uniting the Force (Anakin-Vader-Anakin) failed. Episode 8 offered a moment of a dual unity with Rey and Ren in union, though that was denied by Rey.
A vacuum is then left which had to be filled. Into it The Last Jedi tries to pour the liquid of false hope and social media-fueled commercialized co-opted revolutionary identity.
There’s a final battle scene on another frozen planet. Like on Hoth, the rebels escape. The rebels according to Leia are a “spark that will light the flame that will burn down the First Order.” The movie ends with a scene of slave children being abused and one of them holds up his broom as a lightsaber. That plus the strange interlude on the Las Vegas-like planet of Canto Bight. These two scenes attempt to wrap the rebellion (and larger resistance) into a larger class warfare struggle. But again those places were themselves under the 2nd Republic (one assumes).
Like US Democrats or France’s Macron, the setup is between an evil (neo)fascist Empire or a centrist liberalism (The Republic) with a faux-revolutionary cultural ethos of being “The Resistance.” There’s no real sense of a plan of how to potentially govern or really concretely what the revolution is supposed to entail. It’s simply meant to create emotionally laden group identity. It's identity politics blown up to an interplanetary scale.
J.J. Abrams is taking back over direction for Episode 9 (Rise of Skywalker) from the abominable work of Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi. Given Abrams’ pretty poor showing in Force Awakens, I’m not terribly confident he’ll be able to patch this broken mess back together.
Nine is an important number symbolically. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity one adores the Trinitarian God, the Three-in-One, the One-in-Three. And there is a practice of triple Trinitarian invocation, 3 x 3 = 9. It’s a number of completion and perfection, being the summit of the single digit numerals. The film ought to be a circumambulation of praise and adoration of The Trilogy of All Trilogies. But alas I fear it will be otherwise. Maybe the Force still has one trick left in its bag.
Help us Force, you’re are only hope.
Also perhaps Benicio del Toro’s character DJ. His line "They blow you up today you blow them up tomorrow", quite cynical and Black Pill though it is, nevertheless punctures a deep wound in the classic hero/villain light/dark aspect of the story.