Star Wars, by virtue of its immense popularity and cultural importance, is bound into a morally corrupt system. A capitalist superstructure controls and owns most of cinema. Even the most daring and independent art cannot totally avoid it. Star Wars is deep into that system’s gears. Despite this, the franchise has been historically self-reflective. The prequels confront the moral problem of Star Wars’ legacy head on. They invent a new visual language, abstract and floaty, that distances itself from the dirty, grounded aesthetic of the original trilogy. Then, it condenses into nostalgic images with unbearable terror and weight. The only image those films return to with triumph is the binary sunset. All other images – stormtroopers, Vader, the emperor – carry the weight of coming atrocity, of capital grinding its gears.
The Last Jedi, burdened with The Force Awakens’ nostalgia, cannot distance itself from the original films the way the prequels do. So it doubles down on the hollow conflict of Awakens. The film is totally uninterested in broader political context, only in the individuals caught inside. What the First Order wants, what the Resistance is fighting against, feels weightless and strange. Since I first saw TLJ, this seemed a weakness. The movie was unable to properly contextualize its world. However, watching the score-only track, seeing its images separated from the burden of plot, its power came through.
The movie is not as condemning of Disney or of capitalism as it should be, but these images seethe with anger and terror. So many people die and it is all in service of a war that feels tremendously hollow. When capital owns myth, the conflict between “light” and “dark” will always exist. TLJ finds this to be unbearably tragic. The ships strip to the bone, like bodies blasted and frayed. The earth itself bleeds. Leia sits in front of the flickering screen of a VHS tape, a condemnation of our nostalgic need for more violence, for the cycle to begin anew, for our friends to return only to die. Hollow nostalgia kills, and the wider world is all too eager to fund that killing. Canto Blight is essential to the movie for this reason. Its capitalist class represents Hollywood’s interest in seeing narratives of terror and oppression repeat forever. Del Toro’s character is not some both sides, above it all wise guy. He is a center of Disney’s moral rot, continuing conflict because it is profitable and because those lives don’t really matter, do they? Not in the face of unending profit.
However, the movie does have an answer to the terror of capital: the power of narrative to connect us, echoing Star Wars’ past. In Return of the Jedi, Luke nearly kills his father in anger. He sees his father’s severed hand, crackling with electricity and thinks of his own hand, its wires tickling under his glove. He sees what connects them and chooses to believe in that connection.
TLJ mines that image of connection for both terror and joy. Despite Kylo Ren’s connection to his mother, the institution he supports still nearly murders her. Rey and Kylo’s force calls bind them in a way that gives them both power over each other. It could save them or damn them. Many of the cuts between the film’s plots rely on the characters being bound together across space and time. Luke sees Leia’s hologram, just as she is in danger. Finn holds the beacon in his hand, just as Rey fidgets with it. Hands embrace, even over incredible distances. Again, the film’s weird sense of space and time wandered from a problem to beautifully deliberate. Space is flattened because all these characters are together, though they are apart. Despite the all encompassing narrative of capitalism, these characters share something together and fight for that responsibility to each other.
This theme concludes not only with Luke projecting himself into conflict far away from him, choosing to involve himself in the wider galaxy, but also with Rose saving Finn. When Finn chooses to die, he is awash in the same digital fire that consumed so many lives earlier in the film. It is in contrast to the positive, natural destruction of the tree earlier. Whereas that was an image of a natural fire, part of the cycle of life, the color that encompasses Finn’s face is a bright and horrible image of capitalism’s ability to consume. It’s a, likely unintentional, repudiation of Rogue One. In that film, the characters are literally destroyed by a capitalist future. In order for a New Hope to rise, all these people must die. TLJ knows that hope is found in survival, in the ability of people to tell their own stories. It knows that there is no triumph in lives lost, only terror. It might be necessary, but it is never good. Even in death, we must hold on to connections, use them to save, rather than to murder.
It is the story of Star Wars, more specifically its ability to connect, that saves the Resistance. The mythic warrior Luke is nothing but an illusion, but that illusion still has power. Luke’s image literally helps the resistance escape. The kids at the end repeat these tales, in a new tongue, with scraps and broken toys. They gain strength and skill to live on, to make stories of their own, that will never be subjected to the violence of Hollywood’s camera.
This is what I hope to take with me to Rise of Skywalker, that whatever retcons or cowardice there is in the film is, it doesn’t belong to them. These stories belong to us. Corporate power feels all encompassing, but we can resist. We can save what we love. The binary sunset has always been a symbol of hope, of power beyond the drudgery and terror of the moment. With its invocation, TLJ asks us to look up to the sky and make something of our own. It asks us to believe that new stories are possible. It asks us to love what we love, which will never be these films themselves. Rather what we will love they show us about ourselves, the strength they give us to carry on, and the way we can weave them into our own story.
In a better world, Star Wars would not exist as it does, a massive cultural monolith to which we all must bow. But we can appropriate it to make that world. We can turn the circular narratives of blockbuster to our own ends and make them anew. A better world exists beyond our sight. Watching this film, I could see it, only briefly. I wept with relief.