by Gerry Conway
EDITOR’S NOTE: This review is slightly longer and more into cultural-political analysis than the previous review of The Last Jedi on this page. Okay, much longer and more into cultural-political analysis, we admit. But hey, diversity is how we roll over here at TVWriter™. (Uh-oh, we used the D word. Hope the White House won’t mind.) Hope you enjoy both POVs.
Time to talk about “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
(I’m going to assume that by now, Sunday of opening weekend, you’ve seen the movie, because, if you haven’t, a: what’s wrong with you? and b: why are you reading my blog?)
In a terrific piece for Vulture.com, @abrahamjoseph discusses “Last Jedi” as the first truly populist Star Wars movie. [http://www.vulture.com/2017/12/rey-parents-star-wars-last-jedi-populism.html] I fully agree with Abraham’s reading, but I’d add a further observation: it’s the first story in the Skywalker saga to honestly address tensions between generations– in particular, tensions between the Baby Boom generation and the generations that have come to adulthood since its rise, Generation X, and the Millennials.
George Lucas was the avatar of the Boom generation, and his obsessions, fantasies, political beliefs, life choices, myopias, and sense of destined self-importance are all hallmarks of the generation he embodied and spoke to.
Rian Johnson is a true representative of Generation X, a talented and gifted man whose singular voice has been muffled by the presence of aging giants taking up creative space around him. If Johnson had arrived on the scene in 1972 with a film as smart and accomplished as his debut “Brick,” I could easily imagine him having been embraced as were Lucas or Spielberg or Friedkin, and given the same opportunities they received for far less accomplished debuts. (“THX-1138,” for all its technical achievements, suffers from an intellectual coldness of execution; no one ever has made a case for “Sugarland Express” as other than pleasantly forgettable; and the less said about “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” the better.) But Johnson, and his fellow Generation-X directors, men and women, came of age as young filmmakers in the early 2000s– an age dominated by Baby Boom filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, et al. Johnson’s opportunities (and theirs) were diminished. To contrast, in the ten years starting with “Sugarland,” Spielberg made eight films; Johnson made three. Not everyone is a Spielberg, of course, but it’s a fact the Baby Boom generation sucked up most available funding for filmmaking between the mid-1970s and the late 2000s. Talented filmmakers like Rian Johnson (and fellow Generation-X director Patty Jenkins) paid their bills and honed their skills directing television, where they contributed (with other shut-out Generation-X creatives) to an explosion of remarkable narrative experimentation unequaled on the big screen itself.
Ironically, the director of the first new Star Wars film, J.J. Abrams, seems to have more in common with the aesthetic, emotional, and political concerns of the Boomer generation than his fellow Gen-Xers, possibly because, at age 51, his childhood in the late Sixties and early Seventies was surrounded by the Boomers’ cultural triumph. Rian Johnson and Patty Jenkins grew up as the Boomers’ idealized liberal world collapsed into Reaganesque cultural exhaustion.
It’s this ‘80s collapse of the Boomer’s liberal dream into conservative exhaustion that informs Rian Johnson’s aesthetic and narrative approach to “The Last Jedi.”
Episode VIII, unlike Episode VII, recognizes the Boomer fantasy of cultural and political renewal through rebellion and the power of elitist “destiny” actually ended in disappointment, failure, and despair. The Baby Boomer Rebels who fought an Evil Empire that invaded the jungles of Endor and burned Ewok villages (an easy Boomer metaphor for U.S. miltary action in Vietnam) ultimately collapsed into a corrupt generation of disillusioned idealists. Those despairing former idealists then empowered the rise of a new militarism, unopposed by an out-of-touch political establishment so distant from average citizens its destruction is a barely noticeable flicker in the sky.
Rian Johnson deconstructs the myths of the Baby Boom generation that adopted Star Wars as its foundational fiction. The rebellion against the Empire produced not a healthy new Republic but a remote and disconnected government with no productive impact on the lives of its poorest, weakest citizens (Rey and Finn). The heroes of the Rebellion either retreated when confronted by failure to fulfill their “destiny” (Luke), turned back to their previous lack of convictions (Han), or soldiered on in an attempt to reclaim old ideals in the face of diminishing odds (Leia). Thirty years after the death of Emperor Palpatine nothing really has changed in that Galaxy long ago and far away. It’s a bleak recognition the 1960s Boomer Revolution was an utter political failure (but not a cultural failure, since we live in a culture that pretends to realize Boomer ideals).
To be fair, Abrams nods toward these notions in “Force Awakens” but undercuts their impact by hewing closely to the undergirding mythic structure of the original Boomer-fantasy “Star Wars.” The idea that destiny and mysticism will produce ultimate victory is a Boomer trope thoroughly embraced by “Force Awakens” and totally dismantled by “Last Jedi.” At every turn, in this latest film, Rian brings to bear the judgmental eye of a somewhat cynical Generation-Xer– surprisingly, and pointedly, not just upon the self-serving fantasies of Baby Boomers, but on the inexperienced surety of the generation following his own, the Millennials.
Just as Luke, Han, and Leia are revealed as heroes with feet made substantially of clay (Leia comes off best of the three, but again, notably, is out of action when crucial decisions must be made), the four featured Millennials in the story are also subjected to Rian’s cool Gen-X appraisal. Kylo, Rey, Finn, and Rose embody familiar traits of today’s Millennial generation.
With Rey, we are presented with the idealistic Millennial archtype– a passionate young woman who embraces the professed beliefs of an earlier idealistic generation, even when she doesn’t quite understand them. (The Force is a “power that helps you move things.”) She’s hopeful, convinced the old ways can restore justice, even though those old ways failed before. She hasn’t come into her own yet. She still seeks strength and validation from others. She wants to be rescued, but slowly, over the course of the story, realizes she must do the rescuing. Her idealism is as yet untempered by experience, but the disappointments she experiences both with Luke and Kylo finally make her stronger than ever.
With Finn, we find a Millennial beaten into submission by a system that appears impossible to resist. His first instinct is always to escape any way he can– but opposing that instinct, and empowering his initial rejection of the First Order’s ruthless militarism, is a strong sense of empathy. Instinct tells him to run; empathy makes him run toward those in need. The first time he sees Rey, in “Force Awakens,” he thinks she’s in danger and impulsively runs toward her. His first word on waking in “Last Jedi” is “Rey!” Even when he’s about to flee the doomed Resistance fleet, he’s combined his instinct to run with an instinct to protect. Like Rey, at the beginning of “Last Jedi” he isn’t who he will become by the end. He’s conflicted, uncertain, immature, and inexperienced. He learns a lot hanging out with Rose.
Rose, Finn’s new friend, is the most emotionally developed and self-aware Millennial in this group, possibly because she’s had the benefit of a close relationship with an admired older sister. Rose knows who she is and what she believes. She has enough experience in life to understand the structural injustice that underpins the Galactic order, and is dealing with the kind of personal tragedy that gives one perspective. Of all the Millennials in “Last Jedi” she changes the least during the story because she’s already who she will always be: a capable, brave, empowered woman who knows her place in this world– a worker and doer, not a dreamer.
And Kylo. Kylo Ren is the most obviously political figure in “Last Jedi,” the embodiment of alt-right Millennial nihilism. Feeling abandoned by his late-life, self-involved Boomer parents, attacked with suspicion by the substitute parent who became terrified by his potential, embraced and manipulated by a cynical monster, another substitute father– Kylo Ren is Millennial rage incarnate. He embraces anonymity behind a mask while striking out in unbridled anger against all who oppose him (sub-redit, anyone?) and yet, pathetically, yearns for the approval of a woman he scorns. If Rey is the light side of idealism, the promise of hope, Kylo is the dark side of idealism thwarted, the nihilism of despair. Rage is the expression of Kylo’s hopelessness, not its source.
This is a fundamental difference between Lucas’s vision of the dark side of the Force and Johnson’s. To Lucas, the eternal Boomer idealist, the dark side was always incomprehensible– the explanation he provides for Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side in the prequels never feels right. (Tellingly, in the original trilogy, Vader’s origin is never explained.) Because Lucas himself wasn’t thwarted in pursuit of a dream, never faced exclusion from the idealistic fantasies of the Boomer generation, never despaired from lack of hope– he couldn’t articulate what gives the dark side of the Force its bleak alure. “Fear” and “anger” are meaninglessly abstract without personal context. Rey and Finn are often angry and fearful, but is there ever a real question they’ll despair? Even in their darkest moments they cling to hope. Why does Anakin succumb to the dark side? Lucas doesn’t really know, and the manner in which he structures Anakin’s story provides easy answers but not convincing ones.
Rian Johnson, however, the Gen-X filmmaker initially thwarted pursuing a career must understand the seductive lure of despair. He can empathize with Ben Solo, and make his embrace of the dark side comprehensible, in a way Lucas could not with Anakin Skywalker. (Or J.J. Abrams, who portrayed Kylo’s dark side persona as a combination of twisted ancestor-worship and petty father resentment.) Johnson’s approach to Kylo Ren is tempered with sadness and maturity. It’s the sighing judgment of a Gen-X middle manager watching a potentially valuable younger employee destroy himself. Such a waste, but so understandable.
This aspect of the complicated Generation-X perspective brings me to the two Gen-X characters in “Last Jedi,” who, fittingly for Gen-X, may seem less important compared to the colorful and dominant Boomer and Millennial stars, but prove to be the heart and soul of the moral argument at the core of this great movie: Poe Dameron and Vice-Admiral Holdo.
On the surface, Poe Dameron is very much a Han Solo knockoff– the cocky, smart-talking pilot who achieves the impossible with style. In Episode VII, by Boomer-influenced J.J. Abrams, that’s all he was, and apparently, until Oscar Isaac made a case for continuing the character, he wasn’t even intended as more than a one-off. With Rian Johnson at the helm, however, Poe becomes a crucial figure whose character arc encapsulates the lessons Johnson seeks to impart with this film: victory isn’t achieved by miracles, it isn’t only a product of self-sacrificing heroism, it’s hard won, complicated by tough choices, and sometimes what needs to be sacrificed isn’t a life– but the notion of heroism itself. Poe begins the movie believing victory is possible only if you’ll dare to pay the price; by the end, he understands “victory” isn’t victory if the price is life itself. That’s an incredible statement for an American blockbuster to make (a theme underscored by Rose preventing Finn from making the ultimate sacrifice himself). In 2017, after 16 years of America fighting an unending war with no “victory” in sight, it’s as political a statement as the original Star Wars metaphor of Empire trampling the jungles of Vietnam/Endor.
But there’s another side to the Generation-X cynism about war’s futility: , the fact that, despite cynicism, and awareness the battle might not be worth the price, Gen-X is still willing to do what needs to be done. Knowing hope may be unjustified, the Gen-Xer still hopes. This conflict between cynicism and hope is at the heart of the Generation-X dilemma, and at the heart of “Last Jedi.” That conflict, with its ultimate decision in favor of hope, is given form and power in the noble sacrifice of Vice Admiral Holdo.
Vice Admiral Holdo is the older, wiser, unimpressed but still hopeful Generation-X leader who understands the risks of action and so refuses to act recklessly. She didn’t start the war– the Boomers did. She inherited it. She wants to minimize damage and salvage what she can. She knows, when the bill comes due, she’s the one who must pay it– and she does, without hesitation, because that’s what the men and women of her generation always do. She cleans up the mess Leia and the Resistance leaders left behind. She guides the retreat. She does what must be done. Practical and blunt, she has no time for Poe’s heroic bullshit. Because she knows the Resistance may never achieve what the Rebellion tried to accomplish, she understands despair, but she’s too busy dealing with the problems before her to indulge it– or to hope. She does what’s necessary. It’s what Generation-Xers always do. Even if it means flying a cruiser at light speed into a First Order fleet.
Great movies reflect an era through the eyes of artists who embody that era. George Lucas embodied the era of Baby Boom “destiny” and self-conceit (“I’m the most important individual in the Galaxy because of my mystical understanding of reality”). Rian Johnson embodies our era of diminished heroism, cynicism and near despair– tempered by the hope, if we can but learn from our heroes’ mistakes, that somehow, some way, some day, we may yet restore balance to the Force.
Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.