(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
This column exists in large part because of Star Wars and my renewed belief that the saga can provide hope and spiritual sustenance in an increasingly bleak reality. It was true with Rogue One and doubly true with The Last Jedi, now being hailed as one of the best in the entire series. It arrives at a very dark moment indeed, and yet like the movies that preceded it, it speaks very powerfully to where we’re at right now. The fact that it does so in a universal way – feeling absolutely pertinent without being bound to the political truths of late 2017 – affirms the hypothesis that these movies get at some very primal components of the human condition.
(I’m not going to get into the specifics of the film’s plot, and rest assured that the discussion here will be spoiler free. If you’re worried on that front, go see the film and come back when you’re ready. We’ll wait.)
Most of the basics have already been inferred both by the title The Last Jedi and by things we know from previous Star Wars movies. It starts with one of the bigger head-scratchers from The Force Awakens. Having vanquished the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi, how did the Republic suddenly end up on the skids again? Beyond a bit of hand-waving in the opening crawl – and the strangely muted impact of the like-a-Death-Star-only-bigger Macguffin in the middle of it – it’s basically back to business as usual, with the First Order picking up where the Empire left off and the victorious heroes returning to their role of renegade underdogs. In The Last Jedi, things get even bleaker, with the Resistance pushed to the breaking point and Team Evil coming dangerously close to snuffing them out forever.
What gives? Why the sudden reversal in fortune beyond the fact that Evil Empires never go out of style as intergalactic villains? The Force Awakens presented the quiet beginnings of an answer, which The Last Jedi makes more explicit, and in so doing matches what a lot of us have been grappling with in the real world for some time. (More on that in a moment.)
To be clear, “more explicit” is still inferential rather than direct. It connects to the status of the Jedi themselves, whose status Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) contemplates heavily in this latest film. “It’s time for the Jedi to end,” he intones ominously in the trailer, which naturally set off an Internet firestorm over his exact meaning. Luke’s dilemma here lies in the realization of what the rest of us learned in the prequels. The Jedi are hubristic, hidebound and inflexible, which kept them blind to the danger in their midst and helped facilitate the rise of the Emperor.
In The Force Awakens, we learned that Luke hosted a Mini-Me version of the same event, as his nephew Ben (Adam Driver), turned to the Dark Side and destroyed the new Jedi Order just as it was beginning to bloom. When that film opened in 2015, that seemed like a bit of hand-waving to reset the stakes: knock the heroes back on their heels, reboot the Empire and do the whole thing again with different players in the starring roles.
One of the truly brilliant things about The Last Jedi is how it refuses to just sit on that equation, despite the fact that most of us were more or less okay with it. It chooses to unpack the notion, explore it in depth, and ask some very probing questions about the nature of good and evil. Luke serves as the fulcrum, and I won’t say more than that, but the issue is clear: how does one find the essence of a thing without getting lost in the surface trappings? The Jedi, the Sith, the Empire, the Republic, the First Order, the Resistance… they’re all just masks hiding this constant balance. The light side doesn’t vanish just because its mask does. Neither does the dark. The battle raging across that galaxy far, far away is a constant because we’re always struggling with the same issues: how to stop injustice from spreading, keep good people from being hurt, and allow the better angels of our nature to flourish.
And again, those fundamental questions haunt us as we deal with the implications of a man like Donald Trump in the White House. His petit-fascist leanings have become transparently clear in his assault on minorities, women, a free press, the basic foundations of our government, and often reality itself. In the process, his flying monkeys continue to multiply. As I write this, Alabama is deciding whether to elect a credibly accused child molester (and objectively reprehensible human being) to the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, rumblings in the right-wing media suggest that Trump will attempt to fire Robert Mueller… and that a supine Republican Congress might just let him get away with it, effectively placing him above the rule of law.
That comes on top of the catastrophic shocks to the system arising from wave after wave of sexual harassment allegations, mass shootings, racial profiling, partisan gerrymandering, net neutrality at the edge of a cliff, and a tax plan that even the GOP can barely pretend is anything other than a naked cash grab. We’ve seen it before, time and again, no matter what the nation or era. It often feels like we haven’t learned a thing from the lessons of history.
In the face of all this, I hear Luke’s words echoing from numerous fellow resisters. “It’s not just Trump. It’s the system that brought home to power. Burn it all down, and build something beautiful in the ashes.”
It may come to that, one way or another. Even if it doesn’t, the hard work necessary to heal the damage and make this a nation worth belonging to may take a lifetime. And as we sit here, contemplating just how much darker it might get, The Last Jedi reflects the mood perfectly. Once again, seemingly embattled survivors fight a nearly hopeless battle: struggling to keep the flame of something better from being snuffed out.
And in that message comes hope: not in the surface trappings of a system that may be collapsing even as we speak, but in the belief that justice – real justice – is worth fighting for. Millions upon millions of people agree, and continue to do everything they can to keep it alive. Trappings don’t matter. People do, as do the ideals that most of us used to take for granted but are currently defending with every breath we can muster.
Those ideals haven’t gone anywhere. And as long as we keep them alive, the spark can light a fire. The surface can die, the deadwood can be swept away, but new life is always waiting beneath it. The balance is unchanged.
The Last Jedi addresses that partly in Luke’s Lear-like battle with his own demons, but also in his sister Leia, played by the late Carrie Fisher. It’s a beautiful curtain call for the actress, allowing her most beloved creation to take center stage and remind us why we adore her so much. She’s there as the darkness falls, calm, collected and readying her next move. She stares down annihilation with unblinking certainty, knowing that her cause is right. And when others falter or fail to see the big picture, hers is the voice that rallies them again and again. “Don’t doubt the sunrise just because you can’t see it,” she tells us: a voice long gone, but far from silenced.
Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, when candles are lit as a sign of hope. That hope shines on, and no amount of shadow can dissipate it. If you need a reminder, there’s a movie opening Friday that has exactly, precisely what you need. I’m guessing you won’t need much prompting to give it a look.