[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.]
“Your parents were nothing,” the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) tells potential Jedi knight Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It’s the big revelation of the film—and a clever defiance of expectations.
The Star Wars films have long been as obsessed with bloodlines and heredity as a high-fantasy epic. The Force is like a divine right of kings, passed down from Anakin to Luke and Leia to Kylo Ren in an aristocracy of power. The fact that Rey is just some random scavenger from a backwards desert planet with a great talent for the Force nicely tilts the series away from its feudalism, and toward democracy.
Or it should. The problem is that the film does seem to believe Rey’s parents are nothing. They’re poor scavengers who abandoned her and are irrelevant to the plot. The film makes a progressive gesture, only to toss it aside. Rather than embodying progressive values, The Last Jedi comes off like the Republican party, hiding its reactionary impulses beneath a populist mask.
The problem is that the film doesn’t connect its characters’ working-class backgrounds to Rebellion politics.
To be fair, The Last Jedi’s progressive gestures are a lot more convincing than Trump’s. The most recent films in the Star Wars series have rightly been praised for including more women and people of color than in the original, very white and even-more-male trilogy. The Last Jedi introduces a new lead, Rose Tico, a Rebel maintenance worker played by Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran.
In one sequence, Rose and ex-sanitation worker Finn (John Boyega) travel to a wealthy casino world for arms dealers. Rose remembers her own impoverished childhood, lays the blame squarely at the feet of the indifferent, decadent exploiters, and then she and Finn destroy some gambling dens and free the cute captive Disney CGI steeds forced to race for the entertainment of the wealthy. It’s a full-on eat-the-rich moment of class critique—virtually the first of its kind in the series.
The fact that The Last Jedi has a critique at all, though, unfortunately highlights just how confused Star Wars is about class. The film is mostly about the ongoing battle between the evil First Order and the good Rebellion, which are both literally led by members of the same hereditary monarchical family. The fight looks more like an Arthurian family squabble than a working-class revolt, with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as the legendary king who pulls the light saber from the stone and sweeps his enemies before him by virtue of his midi-chlorian-rich blue blood.
We’re told repeatedly that the First Order is a totalitarian menace and the Rebellion is the hope of freedom, but as far as we see in the film, they’re mostly just a couple of noble houses blasting away at each other. The roguish thief DJ (Benicio del Toro) claims that good guys and bad guys aren’t much different—and while the insight is immediately dismissed, he objectively has a point.
You could argue that Rey, Finn and Rose provide evidence of the resistance’s virtue. All three are working-class; all three play a prominent role in the Rebellion’s defense. The problem is that the film doesn’t connect its characters’ working-class backgrounds to Rebellion politics. Rose’s impassioned criticism of the rich occurs in a subplot off to the side of the First Order/Rebellion battle—those wealthy, evil arms dealers, as the film says several times, sell weapons to both sides.
Finn, for his part, is a former stormtrooper. Up until 2015’s The Force Awakens, stormtroopers were mostly presented as faceless, undifferentiated thugs—evil minions to be mowed down by the protagonists. The Force Awakens, though, presented Finn as a victim, captured as a child, indoctrinated and forced to fight. His escape to the Rebellion is an escape from enslavement. You could imagine a film in which the Rebellion were fighting to free the stormtroopers and pry an entire exploited class from the grasping glove of the First Order.
That’s not the film series we’ve got, though. Finn isn’t part of a besieged underclass, and he has no feelings of solidarity for his former companions, whom he kills with no compunction and even with evident relish. Finn is, in short, presented as exemplary; he is a special stormtrooper, who has escaped from his debased milieu through a combination of superior intelligence and ethical fortitude. The other stormtroopers are weak or malicious or both; if they were worthy, like Finn, they’d stop stormtrooping. Since they don’t, they deserve whatever they get.
Finn’s a token, an extraordinary stormtrooper who pulled himself up by his shiny white bootstraps. He shows that good people can escape oppression by themselves, which means that the government can cheerfully set about cutting other stormtrooper’s welfare benefits or simply shooting them in the head, depending on which star system you’re in.
Rey’s plot has a similar arc. Following The Force Awakens, there was speculation that Rey is Luke’s daughter, or Ben Kenobi’s, or Leia and Han’s, or Emperor Palpatine’s. Because she was so strong in the Force, fan theories assumed she had to be part of one or another important Force families. Instead, The Last Jedi reveals that Rey’s parents were just poor people. They were, as Kylo Ren says, nobody.
Of course, poor people aren’t actually “nobody"—the poor are human beings, and are frequently more courageous and honorable than the rich folks who run the world.
That’s not how things work in this plotline, though. Rey’s parents are depicted as selfish and unfeeling, and they have no influence on their daughter except for the trauma she experiences because they abandoned her. When Rey refuses Kylo Ren’s offer to join him at the head of the First Order, her decision isn’t based on anything her parents taught her. She rejects him, not as a lumpen prole outsider, but as a loyalist to Luke and Leia and the Rebellion’s hierarchy. Rey is special-touched by the Force. Like Finn, she’s not in the film because she’s a member of an oppressed class, but because she’s lifted herself out of it.
Finn and Rey have climbed out of the underclass to fight for one group of hereditary scions against the other. As such, they’re a perfect advertisement for the GOP approach to poverty or oppression—ignore it, and then point to the few people who make it out despite your best efforts as a sign that the system works. Maybe in the final installment in the trilogy, Rey’s family and other space scavengers will appear to join in a stormtrooper direct action, overthrowing the Skywalker hierarchy in favor of an elected worker’s council. But at the moment, The Last Jedi’s populist gestures look designed to bolster, rather than end, the status quo, whether in the galaxy far away or nearer to home.