Essays, Not Rants! 299: Long Live The Resistance
It's really easy to see the original Star Wars as an anti-establishment film. Han, Luke, and Leia are a trio of rebels vying to undermine and overthrow the Man. And given that the movie is a product of the 70s, it just might be intentional. Empire has the Man crackdown on our plucky heroes, and Return of The Jedi culminates in the final usurpation.
Of course, within this framework, any story about plucky rebels can be interpreted as anti-establishment. Mega Man Zero is about Zero and the Resistance exposing Neo Arcadia for the dystopia it is. The Matrix has Neo fighting back against the humanity-controlling Machines. Harry Potter and his friends form Dumbledore’s Army to take on Umbridge.
But antiestablishmentarianism is in Star Wars’ DNA, and not just as an idea as in some other examples. And for that, you need look no further than the prequels.
Which, sounds kinda odd, because the heroes in the prequels are part of the establishment. The Jedi Order is in full swing and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are members. Padmé is a Queen and a Senator. On the other hand, Tatooine, a planet beyond the reach of the Republic, is a lawless land of slavery. The villainous Confederacy is trying to destroy the peaceful Republic. Ostensibly, it’s the inverse of the original trilogy’s ethos.
But the prequels are about the fall of the Republic. And it is not brought down by an external resistance: it is brought down from within. For all the fighting the Confederacy does, they don’t destroy the Republic. The Republic is a corrupt system, full of infighting that prevents anything from being done (as we see with Naboo’s blockade in Phantom Menace). The Jedi Order is all too ready to make the jump from peacekeepers to generals. The Republic is not a good thing: it is old and decrepit, and its conversion into the Empire is a product of its own failings. In the prequels, the heroes may be servants of the establishment, but the establishment is not a good thing. Revenge of The Sith has the Senate, who our heroes have been championing, capitulating to Darth Sidious. No, the prequels don't have Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padmé fighting the Man, instead their loyalty to the establishment is their undoing.
The recent movies carry on this point of view. The New Republic in The Force Awakens doesn't believe the First Order to be a credible threat and are so destroyed, leaving Leia and her Resistance to fight on. They were, to an extent, abandoned by the establishment and left to fend for themselves. Rogue One speaks for itself (if you need a reminder: ragtag team of diverse nobodies take on a monolithic empire).
So Star Wars is decidedly anti-establishment. Cool.
The Last Jedi, however, embraces this ethos with an unrivaled vigor. In the bigger, meta scheme of things, Star Wars is now the establishment. It's no longer this weird sci-fi movie that mixes together westerns, samurai films, and Flash Gordon serials; it's its own thing and its heroes pop culture legends. So The Last Jedi sets out to deconstruct a lot of Star Wars’ tropes, this time turning its anti-establishment lens on its own heroes. The establishment in The Last Jedi takes the form of a variety of legacies; the legacy of the Jedi, the legacy of the Empire, even the legacy of Luke Skywalker. The movie itself challenges our assumptions about these things, challenging us to ask questions about them we may not be too keen to ask. What if the Jedi should end? What does it mean to have been Luke Skywalker? Why do we care so much for legacies?
Some of these questions are answered, and some of these have no easy answer. Sure, there's still a plucky Resistance against an indomitable First Order, but director Rian Johnson wants to figure out what Star Wars really is, and that means bringing a hammer to some stuff you'd rather not. It's excellently done and particularly bold given how safe Star Wars usually is.
I have A Lot Of Thoughts on The Last Jedi, thoughts that I'll need another viewing and many beer-fueled conversations with friends to mull over. But one thing that's abundantly clear is that The Last Jedi has a very clear image of its identity, and one facet of that is as the culmination of an anti-establishment vision.
Which is pretty neat.