"The Last Jedi" & Self-Referentiality: "Flash Gordon" to "Blade Runner"

The Star Wars saga is remarkable for being overwhelmingly self-referential, and that may account for the duration of the franchise, the first Star Wars movie having appeared in 1978. Most science fiction movies are hardly about the future; they are recycling of ancient and contemporary allusions. The frame for Blade Runner was cinema noire and references to race relations in the United States, the artificial life creatures taking the place of American Blacks as those who are hounded down and killed for going off the plantation. The frame for the Terminator movies, for their part, was the Jesus and Mary story, a person from the future fathering a child whose mother protects him so that he can be the salvation of the world even though people think she is crazy for believing this story. H. G. Wells had the prospect of World War II in mind when he created Shape of Things to Come, and the subsequent movie, Things to Come, fleets of aircraft destroying cities and civilization, when the war that came proved surprising in that cities such as Berlin remained as organized communities even as their buildings were overwhelmingly destroyed. The Last Jedi, the latest story in the Star Wars saga is noteworthy for how true it remains to the basic story line, it’s imagery, and its own mythology and has few contemporary concerns. This self-referentiality constitutes a kind of originality, however much the Star Wars saga still remains something considerably short of art.

I have always been of the opinion that Star Wars was an uncredited ripoff of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. There too there is a galactic empire ruled from a central all urbanized planet that is confronted by a secret cabal, known as the Foundation, that has hidden out on one of the minor planets and which will step in when the chaos unleashed by the fall of the empire takes place. But in the Asimov saga, the secret group is dedicated to what it calls “psychohistory”, which is Asimov’s name for quantitative social science, and it goes about its business through intrigue rather than only warfare. Lucas changed all that by turning the universe into a Manichean one rather than a world of rational politics occasionally unsettled by rogue figures such as the Mule, whose model, I take it, was Hitler. Here, in Lucasworld, good and evil are easily recognized as in opposition to one another though it is never clear, any more than it is in Christianity, why a person chooses to be on the side of evil rather than good, although it does make for ease in storytelling to have the two sides so easily identified. In Lucasworld, there is no need for evil to be attractive, only labelled as one’s adopted nature, though even Shakespeare insisted on making even Richard III attractive in his diabolical way to both Lady Anne and to the audience.

The Star Wars series is self-referential because so many of its themes are all its own. While it does use the idea of a son killing his father, a theme that goes back to Freud and to Sophocles, it also introduces the idea of the closeness of brothers and sisters, Luke Skywalker being the brother of Princess Leia, which is why, when that is disclosed, she prefers Han Solo. But not much is done with how brothers and sisters feel towards one another. Rather, the ground is covered with appealing closeups of interesting faces. The series does not live up to what would be expected of art, which is that it is supposed to mean something, to point to some true thing about its subject matter, to explain something, rather than just go on to the next battle scene, sibling love not explained but just taken for granted. The same is the case with another potentially meaning-filled  theme that is particularly evident in The Last Jedi.  Most of the characters are on suicide missions so as defend what is clearly a lost cause, one that will be redeemed, so the ending of the film makes clear, only in succeeding generations. The characters, one after another, offer themselves up for doomed missions from which they are rescued only by happenchance or the wonders of future medicine. How does it feel to be always ready to die rather than live for a cause? How does it feel to be a Kamikaze pilot or a suicide bomber? The movie doesn’t care about that, just asking its audience to cheer for a character not so much resurrected as rescued just in the nick of time. The movie settles for providing a good time, and that, in its noisy way, is just what it does and all it does. You remember the special effects, you remember the actors, you don’t remember any point, if there was any.

The most referential part of the Star Wars saga is the battle scenes, which are clear steals from World War II technology and tactics. Space battles involve fighters and bombers and giant dreadnaughts to launch the fighters and bombers. Land battles involve skirmish lines, soldiers and tanks, even if the tanks are dressed up as giant camels. The enemy soldiers are even called “Stormtroopers”, although they are dressed in white armor. They also give a Nazi salute.

The pilots at the rebel base are characteristically casual and multi-species, as you would expect from a World War II fighter base where various groups of hyphenated Americans all have a place. It is therefore not surprising, given this message of diversity, that the heroine in The Last Jedi  is told that her parents were not some kind of royalty and that she got her powers from them but that she was the child of undistinguished common folk, her powers coming from who knows where. Similarly, the soldier raised to be a soldier but who goes rogue may be recognized by the audience as being different because he is African American but that would not distinguish him from other species in the galaxy, and so it is only a reference that means something to the audience, not to the plot.

This familiar World War II imagery makes the battles readily recognizable and allows the filmmakers to concentrate on the special effects. The Last Jedi is especially good at that, having low flying fighters draw red traces in the snow as their wake, and red also serves as the background color for the lightsaber battles that take place. Indeed, the overall success of this episode of the saga, as of so many other episodes, lies in its special effects: the island off of Ireland where was filmed the home of the Jedi oldest texts and the abode of Luke Skywalker, like the central American ruins that were a setting in an earlier episode, and the Romanesque architecture of an even earlier one. Repeated from earlier episodes and all the way back to the original are also fighter planes going into long tunnels to deliver their destruction and bridges without railings covering great chasms and visits to bars where there are visitors from many species, the bar becoming in The Last Jedi a posh gambling casino worthy of James Bond.

My favorite self referential science fiction series of all time is the 1936 Flash Gordon series where Flash and Dale square off against that wonderfully deep-voiced Ming the Magnificent, ruler of the planet Mongo, whose robes have a bit of the Orient about them but are all Hollywood. The science of the time is represented by rocket ships used in place of automobiles, which means that soldiers march in cadence for long distances, which has a certain hypnotic effect that is somewhat like that of the way the Stormtroopers in The Last Jedi march, though one can’t help wondering why Ming’s troops couldn’t get where they were going more quickly. The air is thick with the sparks of Van de Graaff machines of the sort used in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. I vividly remember from the time when I came across the Flash Gordon series in the Fifties how the mud people sank back into the walls of their mountain caves when their fitful spurts of energy lapsed and these Zombie-like creatures returned to their somnambulance.  Yes, a later series of Flash Gordon episodes did become referential. There was a series that came out in 1940 that made use of the imagery of mountain troops on skis that had come out of the war between Finland and the Soviet Union. But the original Flash Gordon series, like the Star Wars series, was mainly about itself. The allegory of the light side versus the dark side that appears throughout the Star Wars series is just a catchy and ecumenical version of the battle between good and evil that is the plot underpinning of most serials, even when there are no Nazis afoot. It was there, among other places, in Gene Autry and Radio Ranch, which blended posse chases with the latest in technology in the modern West, and so avoided politics just the way the Superman comics did in that Superman was against crooks and Nazis, but not much interested in using his superpowers to build New Deal projects. So too with Star Wars, which is about good and evil in the pure and so about nothing at all except itself, and so a good time could be had by all, ready to emerge into the light of the street outside the theatre and confront again the parsing of real world politics into who is good or evil this week around.