Note: The following contains spoilers about “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Pop culture can hardly avoid politics anymore, especially in the case of a huge target like “Star Wars.” But the latest movie, “The Last Jedi,” appears to lean into the political fray, from its egalitarian message to a more specific critique of callous plutocrats.
For starters, the film’s revelations about the lineage of Rey (Daisy Ridley), and the closing image that dovetails with that, suggest that a powerful connection with the Force can come from the humblest of origins. While the series has focused on inherited power in the Skywalker clan – from Anakin to Luke, Leia to Ben/Kylo Ren – allowing for the fact that the bad guy might by misleading Rey, “The Last Jedi” seemingly dispenses with heredity as a primary concern.
More pointedly, the mission undertaken by Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) leads them to a planet where the ultra-rich congregate at what amounts to an intergalactic casino. Moreover, it’s noted that most of those one-percenters earned their money from war profiteering – selling weapons to the First Order and Rebels alike – while subjugating and exploiting those around them.
The pair’s escape also weaves in an animal-rights theme, as the two rebels liberate a creature used for a kind of horseracing entertainment. The beast eventually wanders off free, regaining its natural state.
In the bigger picture this is all relatively mild, especially couched within a 2 ½-hour movie. But when a project possesses such a high media profile, pundits inevitably want to provide their own hot takes.
Nor, frankly, does it take much to rile conservatives on constant alert for slights from liberal Hollywood. Mark Hamill’s weekend Twitter spat with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz over net neutrality will provide further ammunition, but it’s worth noting that the star is speaking as a private citizen, not for the movie.
Analysis about political messaging within “Star Wars” movies is hardly new. In 2005, many took dialogue in “Revenge of the Sith” as a not-so-subtle indictment of the Bush administration, starting with Princess Amidala’s observation as the Emperor expands his wartime powers. “So this is how liberty dies,” she says, “With thunderous applause.”
Later, when the turned-to-darkness Anakin Skywalker confronts Obi-Wan Kenobi he warns, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy,” to which his former master replies, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” To many, the exchange vaguely echoed then-President George W. Bush’s pronouncements about terrorism.
The hang-wringing at the time felt a trifle overstated. Today, with political polarization having festered, those addressing the underlying ideas that “The Last Jedi” communicates seem rooted on firmer ground.
The latest batch of “Star Wars” movies have also made a conspicuous effort to be more inclusive in terms of female and minority characters, after the original film was criticized for its all-white vision of space. George Lucas introduced Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, in its sequel.
Of course, there’s a pragmatic aspect to pulling “Star Wars” from the realm of escapism into politics: doing so provides cover for media outlets that wouldn’t normally devote much time to such a movie to latch onto its coattails.
Simply put, when a film earns $220 million in North America in its opening weekend, and more than double that worldwide, the temptation and commercial incentives to talk about it are strong.
There’s obvious irony in a money-making enterprise like “Star Wars” – fattening the coffers of the Disney empire – decrying capitalism run amok. Yet even if that’s a minor, peripheral element in a fantasy set in a long-ago, far-away galaxy, rather than being reluctantly drawn into such debates, “The Last Jedi” signals its willingness to at least be part of the conversation by addressing issues in the here and now.