Burning Star Wars to the ground
Tuesday, 19 December 2017
“I didn’t actually come here to free slaves.”
Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace (1999)
Perhaps the most baffling complaint about The Last Jedi is this: the Finn and Rose subplot is poorly integrated, and could easily be cut without damaging the film. I’ve seen this complaint over and over again, even in reviews that are broadly insightful and positive about the movie. And I think it’s completely wrong. The Finn and Rose subplot is thematically central to the film.
Let’s recap. Finn and Rose need to visit a town on the Space French Riviera called Canto Bight, in order to make contact with someone who will help them break the security codes preventing them from boarding Snoke’s ship undetected.
So they leave the fleeing Resistance fleet in a shuttle and land in Canto Bight. Rose warns Finn that the people there are the worst people in the universe. It’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy, apparently.
We cut immediately to a shot of a popping champagne cork. Canto Bight is a gloriously golden deco set full of fat aliens in lovely suits drinking expensive drinks and carelessly throwing gold coins onto roulette tables. Finn is hugely impressed: these are the richest people in the galaxy. This is like nothing we’ve ever seen in Star Wars before.
Then there’s a shot of lots of lovely champagne glasses shaken, Jurassic Park style, by thunderous footsteps outside. We rush to a balcony, much like the balcony on that planet in the Hosnian system from which the Republican government witnessed its own destruction. A race is starting up, a race in which giant horse-like creatures — fathiers — are running around a track; presumably the rich fat aliens are betting extravagantly on the outcome.
While the race is going on, Rose tells Finn why she hates Canto Bight. The people of Canto Bight are rich from the profit they have earned dealing arms to the First Order. Her own planet was mined to create these arms, and then destroyed in order to test them. She doesn’t blame the First Order for this: she blames the fat aliens, the one percent, the richest people in the galaxy.
Throughout Rose’s speech, Finn is using a telescope to watch the fathiers racing. While she describes the oppression of her planet, Finn is watching the fathiers being savagely whipped by their riders: when we seem them later, they will have visible marks from this mistreatment. Then Finn moves the telescope to see one of the trainers attacking a small child, a stable boy. The fathiers and the boy become a symbol for the oppression caused by the people of Canto Bight, including the oppression of Rose’s home planet.
Finn and Rose return to the casino and spot the codebreaker, who seems to be a beautifully-groomed rich arsehole too concerned with his gambling to help them anyway. But before they can reach him, they are arrested by the police, whose job, of course, is to protect the interests of the rich fat aliens, and ensure that their conspicuous consumption should continue unmolested. We’ve never seen the police in Star Wars before: they will be our antagonists until the end of this sequence. The police tase them immediately and take them to prison.
After he rescues Finn and Rose, Benicio Del Toro will tell Finn and Rose that the fat aliens are rich not just because they sell arms to the First Order, but because they also sell arms — X-wings! — to the Resistance. “They blow you up, you blow them up,” he says. It’s not just the First Order oppressing Rose’s home planet. It’s the continual war between the Separatists and the Republic, the Empire and the Rebellion, the First Order and the Resistance. The peoples of the galaxy have been oppressed for decades by Star Wars.
No one in the Star Wars films cares about the miserable inhabitants of Rose’s home planet. (It’s called Hays Minor, as if anyone cared.) The good guys in Star Wars don’t liberate the oppressed. They blow up space stations and smash up Star Destroyers. Or they levitate rocks and ransack their desk calendars for wise sayings about detachment and balance. Even in this film, while Admiral Holdo is bravely sacrificing herself to save people’s lives, Rey is fighting Kylo Ren for possession of Luke Skywalker’s fucking lightsaber.
And that’s why no one on the Outer Rim answers Leia’s distress call from Crait, the planet salty from the tears of a million fanboys. No one on the Outer Rim gives a shit about the Resistance. Because the Resistance does nothing to relieve their oppression: instead, it actively contributes to it, only ever solving things by getting in an (expensive) X-wing and blowing something (expensive) up.
The film has two endings. The first one is the traditional tableau of our rebellious heroes, like the ones at the end of Episodes IV and VI, where the Rebellion celebrates victories that will not end up making life any better for the oppressed inhabitants of Hays Minor.
The second one is unlike anything we’ve seen in Star Wars before. Or is it? Somewhere on the Space French Riviera, the stable boy is telling the story of Luke Skywalker, a story he can’t possibly know. Like Rey, like us, he has an action figure to help him act the story out. Finn and Rose have given him a spark of hope: they released the oppressed fathiers, let them smash up the rich fat aliens’ casinos and cocktail bars, took off their saddles, and left them to run free in moonlight and long grass. Rose was smiling as she did it.
Because the Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi any more, the stable boy uses it to pick up his broom and starts sweeping. He pauses for a moment and, like farmboy Luke, he looks up into the sky. And John Williams kicks into gear.
Rian Johnson has burned Star Wars to the ground. Now we know who the real enemy is. And we know what the Resistance should really be doing. Let’s hope JJ manages to stick the landing in Episode IX.