Overall, I think there is much to like about The Last Jedi. As I detailed in a previous post, Rian Johnson made sure that each main character in The Last Jedi changed or grew in some way by the end of the film. It’s a common refrain that good movies focus like a laser on character development, and so Rian Johnson deserves some serious credit for not losing sight of the characters. However, while a somewhat rare criticism, I feel that Rian Johnson focused on specific character arcs at the expense of the overall political plot of the sequel trilogy. There is hardly any politics at all in The Last Jedi (and The Force Awakens), and what is there is just a retread of the original trilogy’s politics.
The Problem with Getting No Backstory on Snoke
I wasn’t particularly bothered by the fact that Snoke was killed off in The Last Jedi. As the baton is being handed off to the new generation of villains and heroes, it certainly made some sense for Snoke and Luke, the old masters, to be killed off so Kylo and Rey could become the main characters of this sequel trilogy. Nevertheless, I was disappointed that we didn’t get any backstory on Snoke at all. Though I’m sure that it’ll eventually be revealed in some cannon book, its omission from the movies makes the politics of the sequel trilogy very unsatisfying.
Even though politics isn’t always front-and-center in the Star Wars universe, it has played a critical role in framing the events of the past trilogies. Besides Anakin Skywalker falling to the Dark Side, the main plot arc in the prequel trilogy is the fall of Galactic Republic and the rise of the Galactic Empire. Of course, the main political plot of the original trilogy is the battle between this Galactic Empire and a small group of rebels, which ultimately results in the fall of the Empire. While the political plots of the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy were distinct, the political plots of the original trilogy and the sequel trilogy are virtually identical.
Although The Force Awakens begins with the New Republic, which took over when the Empire fell, in power, their reign doesn’t last very long at all. By the middle of the film, the core planets of this New Republic have been destroyed by Starkiller Base. This leaves Leia’s small “Resistance” as the only group standing in the First Order’s way. So, by the beginning of The Last Jedi, we have a fascist, Empire-like entity with “limitless resources” fighting a small and weak group of rebels. Sound familiar? Moreover, it appears that the First Order is the de facto ruler of the galaxy, as the opening crawl of The Last Jedi says: “The First Order Reigns.”
My problem with this political set-up for the sequel trilogy is that it completely undoes all of the progress that was made in the original trilogy and brings us back to square one. Although it may be realistic for progress to stall and even be reversed, it is not very satisfying thematically and seems to degrade the worth of the original trilogy. For Harry Potter fans, it’s like if JK Rowling decided to write sequels where Voldemort comes back to life and the gang has to fight him again. Or, for Lord of the Rings fans, it’s like if Sauron came back again and the fellowship had to form to try and defeat him for a third time.
So, how could a good backstory for Snoke have addressed this problem? Well, if Snoke had been some ancient, evil villain (this was a proposed title for Episode 7), then that would explain how the First Order could be so powerful, and would give them a unique reason for existing in the lore. Unfortunately, we really learn nothing interesting about the First Order’s origins and ideology in the sequel trilogy, except for the fact that they are basically a clone of the Empire. I don’t need Star Wars to have intricate political plots to enjoy it, but I would’ve liked to have seen something more original to distinguish the sequel trilogy from the original trilogy.
Ultimately, I think one of the weak points with the sequel trilogy so far is that it hasn’t connected back to the themes of the previous trilogies enough. Even though these new films are supposed to be sequels, in some ways they feel like a “soft reboot” of the franchise. For all his weaknesses, George Lucas did make sure that the original and prequel trilogies were connected thematically. Reportedly, if Lucas had made the sequel trilogy, then it would’ve dealt with the “rebuilding of the [New] Republic”, rather than its destruction by a neo-Imperial group (the First Order). This would’ve been a much more interesting political plot than we’ve gotten so far, and would’ve connected well to the original trilogy.