Summary: Feminists praise The Last Jedi, seeing a strong woman leading the revolution against “toxic masculinity.” But she is the villain, similar to the villains in another classic film about a revolution: Battleship Potemkin. These films both show and are part of a revolution. This is the fourth review of Film Week at the FM website.
To understand the present it often helps to look at the past. Battleship Potemkin is a 1925 silent film written and directed by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, one of the greatest innovators in cinematic history. Set in 1905, the movie depicts sailors of a Russian battleship overthrowing their officers – much like the insurgency depicted on the Resistance cruiser Raddus in The Last Jedi (TLJ).
A communist revolution had thrown Tsarist Russia into chaos, but most of the film takes place on a single ship – the Potemkin. Though the Empire’s collapse threw the entire galaxy into chaos, most of The Last Jedi focuses on events aboard the Resistance’s last cruiser.
A movie is visual storytelling. The creative team imagines characters, choses actors, and designs costumes that the audience identifies with familiar types of people. But the action reveals the heroes and villains. A great film shatters the audience’s stereotypes, forcing us to confront the moral conflict on the screen. Both these films do so.
The commanders in both films are cruel aristocrats who have no respect or empathy for their crews.
Many feminist writers agree with Kayti Burke that “Toxic Masculinity Is the True Villain of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” That is obviously wrong. While some traits of masculinity are toxic when applied inappropriately, that is not what happens in TLJ. More precisely, they are not displayed by the male characters.
How do filmmakers create recognizable villains? They can make the villain ugly – like Emperor Palpatine in the original Star Wars films, or Snoke in the new series. Or they can dress the antagonist to resemble familiar villains of history or fiction. How similar are the stories of the Battleship Potemkin to events in TLJ?
Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries understood the power of film and its ability to rapidly spread a vision of socialist realism across a nation. Soviet films depicted the class struggle in many times and places. In Battleship Potemkin the villains were not immediately obvious. The ship’s officers were universally cleaner, better dressed, better education, and better organized than their crew. As the film rolled on the audience saw that the officers were sneering elitists. Especially the ship’s captain, Yvgeny Golikov (played by Vladimir Barsky).
In an America of high and increasing inequality, audiences also see clues about social classes — even if unconsciously added by the filmmakers. Consider the acting captain of the Raddus, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). She is older and taller than most of the other characters. She wears a gown while the crew wears drab uniforms. In the novels she was a member of the Apprentice Legislature, along with Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan and Princess (later Queen) Padmé Amidala of Naboo.
In Battleship Potemkin, the ship’s meat supply is infested with maggots, but the captain orders his sailors to eat it anyway. It’s a cruel and senseless order that the crew refuses. The captain is angered by their resistance and retaliated. The conflict escalates and eventually the crew mutinies.
A similar scenario plays out in TLJ. Holdo takes command of a fleet on the edge of total destruction – but she refuses to share her plan with her subordinates. She refuses to even reveal if she has a plan. This is as senseless as ordering sailors to eat spoiled meat. How does this look to the crew? Holdo’s actions might be irrational. Or perhaps she sees her crew as of lower class, peons whose role is to obey – not question their betters.
The role of a ship’s captain is central to films about naval battles. There are good ship commanders, such as in Das Boot, The Enemy Below, and the many versions of Star Trek. Even previous Star Wars entries feature good ship leaders, such as Admiral Ackbar. Yet Admiral Holdo features none of the empathy and communication skills that defines a good captain. She exhibits many of the traits of “toxic masculinity”, far more so than any other character in TLJ. Toxic masculinity is not the villain of The Last Jedi. Holdo is the villain.
Masculine everyman heroes their respective audiences can empathize with.
The new Star Wars franchise brings to us a new generation of heroes, such as Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). A dashing fighter pilot, he combines aspects of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo from the original trilogy. His comrades often described him as the best fighter pilot in the Resistance. Even his enemies in the First Order respect him, with good reason. Dameron twice saved the Resistance. First, by destroying the Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens, and then by leading the attack on the First Order dreadnought at the beginning of The Last Jedi.
In the opening act of Battleship Potemkin, an officer savagely strikes one of the crewmen. Artillery Quartermaster Vakulinchuk finds the beaten sailor and flies into a rage. He makes an impassioned speech to the assembled men, asking them if they will be the last to join the rest of Russia as it revolts against tyranny. He implies that to not take action would be cowardice. They do not mutiny, but Vakulinchuk has planted a seed in their minds that will eventually flower.
Dameron has nearly an identical moment in TLJ when he discovers Holdo plans to abandon the Raddus, condemning his comrades to a seemingly inevitable death. He tells Holdo that her plan is suicide (which it proves to be for most of the crew) – and an act of cowardice that will destroy the Resistance. While speaking to Holdo, everyone in the room hears as well.
Different worlds. Different ships. Different men. The same call to action.
Vakulinchuk and Dameron share another quality. They are both people with whom the audience can identify. Neither Vakulinchuk nor Dameron is a knight in shining armor. Neither are aristocrats. Vakulinchuk has little education; he is a greasy prole from Ukraine. Dameron usually looks dirty and disheveled. They are the kind of people you meet at an auto shop or a diner.
Heroes are defined by both their qualities and their actions. Especially when fighting with villains, the conflict which drives the plot of a film about revolutions. We see that Holdo is a villain by her attack on Dameron from the first second she meets him.
Earlier Leia had reprimanded and demoted Dameron for the losses he suffered in the attack on the First Order dreadnought. That was odd action, since he saved the fleet from certain destruction. In The Force Awakens we see Leia as a competent leader, so there must be a reason. Perhaps she wanted to dampen Dameron’s ego without alienating him. Dameron later stated that losing his rank did not change anything. That validates Leia’s decision. She knew the demotion would get her point across but not excessively irritate him.
There is no plausible explanation for Holdo’s attitude toward Dameron. Why antagonize their single most important pilot during this grave crisis. Unless of course, Holdo is the villain.
Left to right: Dameron, Finn and Connix. They join Dameron in his mutiny against Holdo.
Many reviewers observed the stark contrast between The Last Jedi’s First Order and the Resistance. The First Order is comprised almost entirely of white males, while the Resistance is a racially diverse force of men and women. However, one aspect that is almost entirely overlooked is the nature of the Resistance’s diversity.
A triumvirate of old white women hold power on the Raddus: Princess Leia Organa, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, and Commander Larma D’Acy. When Leia was unconscious, Holdo assumed command and D’Acy supported her. Holdo ran the cruiser with an iron fist, crushing all dissent and refusing to provide her followers with even basic information. Dameron approached Holdo about his concerns for the safety of the Resistance. She mocked him, and D’Acy prevented Dameron from approaching her again.
This arrangement closely mirrors the tyranny aboard the Potemkin. Sailors complained to the captain about the rotten meat. Vakulinchuk said that the meat is so rotten it “could crawl overboard on its own.” The captain brought out the ship’s doctor, who smugly dismissed Vakulinchuk’s concerns. Senior Officer Giliarovsky chased away Vakulinchuk and his friends while cooks wash off the maggots.
The diversity of the Resistance works against the feminist narrative. Finn and Rose devise a plan to save the Raddus from destruction, but they approach Dameron – not Holdo. They even agree with him to keep Holdo in the dark about it. At this point Holdo has held command for a few hours at most, but the entire crew already considers her dangerously incompetent.
If the villain of The Last Jedi was Dameron’s “toxic masculinity,” why would he include women in his mutiny? Rose worked with Dameron against Holdo, but she did not know of his plans to seize control of the ship if necessary. But Dameron’s most valuable co-conspirator was Kaidel Connix, who did knew.
Her participation in the mutiny is more subversive to the feminist narrative than Dameron’s. Not only by virtue of being female, but in the way her character is drawn.
Top: Captain Giliarovsky realizes he has lost control of the crew and will need to take drastic action.
Bottom: Connix lies to Holdo about the escape pod. Holdo has lost control but doesn’t know it.
In Battleship Potemkin, the opening shots of the movie are given to Vakulinchuk. We see him discussing the revolution with a shipmate. In a few seconds the audience learns much about the story they are about to watch unfold. We see that Vakulinchuk is a respected member of the ship’s crew, a communist, and one of the good guys.
The Star Wars saga follows this visual storytelling technique religiously: the first character shown is always an important one. A New Hope opened with C-3PO and R2-D2. The Force Awakens opened with Dameron.
Who appears first in The Last Jedi? It opens with Lieutenant Kaydel Ko Connix (Billie Lourd, Carrie Fisher’s daughter) overseeing the evacuation of Leia’s base. Connix orders a man to abandon the munitions and concentrate on evacuating people. We see that Connix is a valuable leader in the Resistance and someone makes sound decisions under pressure.
Dameron cannot be dominated by toxic masculinity. If he was, Connix wouldn’t have joined him.
Vakulinchuk’s speeches drives the action of Battleship Potemkin. He grows increasingly hostile toward the officers, and incites the crew to mutiny. In TLJ push for mutiny comes from both Dameron and Connix.
Connix fools Holdo, allowing Finn and Rose to slip away unnoticed in an escape pod. Dameron’s plan would not have been possible without her help. Later, when the first Resistance frigate runs out of fuel and is destroyed, Connix reminds Holdo that the cruiser is running out of fuel too. She voices everyone’s fears, and tactfully implies this is the time for Holdo to share her plan with the officers. Holdo refuses.
If Holdo had explained herself to Connix, the mutiny might not have happened. Even if Holdo did not trust Dameron, she should have trusted Connix. TLJ created multiple opportunities to show to the audience how toxic Holdo was, and unable to retain the confidence of anyone around her. Connix was understandably baffled that Holdo kept her in the dark.
Near the end of TLJ, after the mutiny failed, Holdo sacrificed herself in a suicide run against the First Order, an act of partial redemption for all of her toxic leadership and incompetence. In this moment, Dameron and Connix have a brief, but revealing, exchange of dialogue.
Connix: “She’s running away.”
Dameron: “No, she isn’t.”
The mutiny had failed, but Connix still considered Holdo a coward — and assumed the worst about her to the end.
Only in the Dameron-Connix mutiny does the Resistance shows effective teamwork in TLJ. Dameron communicates with his people. Finn and Rose leave on their mission while Connix keeps Holdo in the dark. The pilots overpower Holdo’s loyalists and Dameron takes control of the bridge.
Perhaps TLJ’s writers unconsciously doubted its feminist message. Holdo was Leia’s heir-apparent, the next generation leadership of the Resistance, but much of the crew rejected her. She was rejected by men like Dameron. Rejected by black people like Finn. Rejected by Asians like Rose. Rejected by white women like Connix.
Is there another old feminist woman in recent American history who was rejected in a similar fashion?
Battleship Potemkin: A Russian mother carries her dead child toward a line of the Tsar’s Cossacks. They gun her down moments later. Eisenstein’s villains are pure evil.
The Last Jedi’s villains are tame in comparison.
There are many similarities between Battleship Potemkin and The Last Jedi. But there are differences as well. One of the key differences is violence. Throughout Battleship Potemkin, the villains commit increasingly monstrous acts of cruelty. The heroes retaliate with their own violence. Each act of violence sets the stage for another, larger act of violence.
An officer strikes a sailor, angering the crew and making them defiant. They refuse to eat spoiled meat. The officers stage a mass execution. Vakulinchuk intervenes – the execution attempt backfires and the crew mutinies. They toss the officers into the sea.
Vakulinchuk is killed in the uprising. His sacrifice is sudden and agonizing. The crew holds a funeral for him in the port of Odessa. The crowd grows angry at his death and turns into a violent political demonstration.
Odessa’s garrison stages a reprisal, mowing down a gathering of men, women and children on the city steps. It’s the most graphic and horrifying scene in the film. Each shot lingers on the violence and forces the viewer to take it all in. The atrocity is political, but demonstrates cruelty that transcends politics. There can be no question at this point that the Tsar’s regime is evil and must be overthrown. The Potemkin retaliated by shooting at a public building.
In the end, the violence of Battleship Potemkin stops as suddenly as it began. A loyalist squadron arrives at Odessa to stop the Potemkin, but the fleet’s gunners refuse to fire. The Potemkin sails past them unharmed, its red flag flying defiantly.
The famous Odessa steps scene from Battleship Potemkin.
Eisenstein was a communist and an atheist, but he framed his films with Christian concepts of morality. The villains were absolute evil, and the heroes absolute good.
Nobody does anything particularly bad in The Last Jedi. Holdo is tyrannical, but doesn’t defend her regime with violence even when it’s blindingly obvious there’s about to be a mutiny. Dameron does not commit violence either. He takes Holdo and her loyalists prisoner without harming anyone. Even when Leia retakes control of the ship, no one is harmed. There’s no reprisal for the mutiny.
Even the First Order isn’t particularly bad. In The Force Awakens, the First Order commits atrocities. They kill unarmed villagers and destroy entire planets, but the montages are clunky and muddled. There’s very little emotional impact. None of those atrocities are repeated in The Last Jedi. General Hux claimed that destroying planets was necessary for victory. He appears to be right. After all, the First Order has taken over the entire galaxy quickly with very little effort.
Was Hux telling the truth? Did a surgical strike on a few planets spare the galaxy from a repeat of the Clone Wars, a conflict that consumed thousands of worlds? The audience cannot know, especially since nobody even tries to challenge Hux’s viewpoint. The New Republic died overnight, and nobody seems to care.
The Conclusion, or lack of one.
Just as The Last Jedi avoids on-screen violence, it seems to go out of its way to ensure none of the battles accomplish anything.
The Last Jedi is heralded as a parable of empowered feminism against toxic masculinity, but proves to be an ineffective one. The movie raises many interesting questions, but answers few of them. It’s a joke without a punchline. A story without a conclusion.
This is in part an inevitable result of avoiding violence. The conflicts of Battleship Potemkin end with violence. The conflicts of TLJ just peter out. Holdo and Dameron feud – until they change their minds. The First Order pursues Leia’s cruiser to a remote outpost, but the Resistance leaders escape on the Millennium Falcon. The First Order inexplicably forget to follow them using their tracking technology, which was the point of the battle in the first place.
Even the personal sacrifices in TLJ have little meaningful impact, unlike Vakulinchuk’s death. Holdo sacrifices her life in a Kamikaze attack and destroys Snoke’s flagship. The First Order is slightly annoyed, but otherwise not affected in any meaningful way. They launch an attack on the Resistance outpost and nearly all the people Holdo was trying to save die anyway.
Battleship Potemkin brings a message of ideological certainty. It was filmed in 1925, after the total victory of the communist forces. In a single generation Russia evolved from a backwards agricultural state into an industrial superpower. There was no doubt in Battleship Potemkin, or any of the other Mosfilm movies from this era, that their revolution would spread across the world.
That confidence is nowhere to be seen in The Last Jedi. The movie dumbs down its male characters to make them weaker and less effective than the film’s female leaders. But the women still look incompetent. Leia inherited a government spanning the galaxy, but lost it. Holdo inherited command, but lost that too. D’Acy can’t even prevent Dameron from entering the bridge.
Star Wars depicts a rebellion against a repressive tyranny. But in the real world, feminists have become a repressive tyranny (ask the now unemployed Formula One “grid girls”). Not just a tyranny, but a fragile one. A tyranny threatened from outside and within. In TLJ, the feminist establishment is unable to cope with either the external “patriarchal” threat of the First Order or dissent from its own ranks.
Battleship Potemkin is a story about Russian communism as its tide rises, strong and unified. There is purpose to every sacrifice in the movie. Ultimate victory is portrayed as inevitable. The Last Jedi is a story about the weakness of American feminism. Deaths in the Resistance are just sad and meaningless, not brave and inspiring like in Battleship Potemkin. The sacrifices are pointless. The film ends as they have lost everything but hope. That may explain why TLJ shows little violence to its audience.
In this TLJ reflects the real world. American feminists have reason to feel weak and afraid. In 2016, feminist icon Hillary Clinton was the heir-apparent to the American presidency. She had a billion dollar campaign, the support of the political establishment, and nearly every major news outlet on the planet. But she lost. Many in her own base rejected her in favor of Sanders.
Just as generations of scholars have studied the Battleship Potemkin to understand the society of early communist Russia, future generations of scholars will study the Star Wars films to understand our time. We should do so now, for the insights gained can help us in the difficult days that lie ahead.
For more about Battleship Potemkin
Other views of the Star Wars films
Few films provide such a clear reflection of key trends in US culture as the Star Wars films. They deserve close study.
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- My review — Part One: Passing the torch between screw-up Boomers and great Millennials.
- My review — Part Two: Girls rule, giving a New Hope to the galaxy!
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Trailers for Battleship Potemkin and The Last Jedi