The new Star Wars movies start where, forty years ago, the original began. Despite the triumph at the end of Return of the Jedi, the political situation in the Star Wars universe has reverted to its previous state. The Empire is now the First Order, the Rebellion is now the Resistance, Palpatine is Snoke, and there are no meaningful differences between the originals and their replacements. Many viewers have complained about the stasis, and indeed it is disappointing. But a Straussian esoteric reading will reveal that it serves a purpose.
Our heroes avoid mentioning the political stagnation—probably because it is decisive evidence of their failure. Luke, Leia, and the other protagonists of the original trilogy continue to see their stories as central to the universe, even though they have accomplished nothing. Rather than restoring balance and galactic order, they have produced a generation of orphans, stuck fighting their supposed leaders’ battles all over again. And no wonder the leaders are no help—they have never even read their own sacred texts, and they abandon their commitments as soon as they face failure.
This, of course, is a sociopolitical meta-commentary on the failures of the baby boomers. The original Star Wars films (Episodes IV-VI) celebrated the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, which the boomers believed had led to a more peaceful, enlightened, and improved universe. The same narrative was repackaged for a new generation in the 1990s, with cosmetic tweaks. And then there were the prequels. But now, in the 2010s, the failures of the revolutionaries can no longer be obscured.
Kylo Ren, our new villain, is the only character to draw attention to these galactic defects: He wants to sweep away the failures of the previous generations and start afresh. “Let the past die,” he says. “Kill it, if you have to.” Kylo was nearly killed by his uncle and mentor, Luke Skywalker, who feared being supplanted by his student (and was probably a lousy mentor anyway, having never completed his own training). Kylo has since gone over to the dark side, but his new master, Snoke, just wants to turn him into a Darth Vader clone. Given that these are his options, of course Kylo wants to kill the past and get rid of both Empire and Rebellion! Sadly, the powerful young woman he wants to join forces with, Rey, is misled by the propaganda of Luke’s generation.
Rey and Kylo are at their best together, fighting for themselves and each other, not for the hypothetical virtues of senatorial rule. But she has absorbed the rebels’ self-serving narrative, and it prevents her from realizing that the Skywalkers and the Rebellion—or Resistance, or whatever they are calling themselves now—have no answers. So she returns to the companion the rebels have selected for her: Finn, the token convert from the First Order. He lacks even a fraction of Rey’s powers, but he still has a leading role as a symbol that the Resistance will finally triumph over the First Order. The Resistance, though, is down to a handful of true believers trying to fan the last embers of their failure into another full-fledged delusion, to ruin a new generation.
There is not enough strength left in the old leadership to do more than spin stories. Leia’s use of the Force to return, zombie-like, to a position of leadership and oversee further disasters is another instance of boomers’ misusing their privileges to cling to their hegemony as long as they can.
Critics have complained that the movies return us to exactly the same balance of power. But this is the point. Nothing changes. Neither the First Order nor the Rebel Alliance is worthy of trust. Their fight over who is in control is irrelevant to the daily lives of the oppressed masses. As Benicio Del Toro’s jaded codebreaker, DJ, expresses: “They blow you up, you blow them up.” The slave children of Canto Bight, who are not deemed worth saving, surely see it this way. At the very least, Broom Boy will remember what the priorities of the rebel saviors were: rescuing the fathiers (charming and exotic horse-like creatures) from the stables of the casino planet, while leaving the child stable hands in chains.
The title of the film, The Last Jedi, only emphasizes that there are no Jedi. These mythical figures, who were supposed to have achieved a mastery of self, are gone. Note that in none of the eight movies so far is the intensive and painful Jedi training regimen followed through. Not a single real Jedi is produced. Instead we have Luke, the “last Jedi,” who cannot master himself or his feelings. He wallows in failure and refuses to do the hard work of addressing what his emotional reactions have wrought. Instead—while hallucinating Yoda’s approval!—he torches what little remains of millennia of tradition, because it feels good. Naturally, this depiction of Luke has provoked a furious reaction from fanboys.
The film’s meta-commentary is that the revolutions of 1968 and following accomplished nothing. The boomers endlessly cling to their narrative and rehash their fights under slightly different names, with no real change. It is no wonder that those who want to burn the past are emboldened today, whether on the far left or on the fascist right. And no wonder, too, that in a world still controlled by the boomers, this critique had to be an esoteric one, hidden within a narrative the boomers would love and pay for.
Caleb Cohoe is associate professor of philosophy at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Samantha Cohoe is a Latin teacher, writer of young adult fiction, and frequent contributor to twitter.com. The views expressed in this article are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of their employers or Leo Strauss. They should also not be taken to express the views of the authors.