Star Wars: The Last Jedi — Ripped From the Gen X Nostalgia Train
“This is not going to go the way you think.”
— Luke Skywalker
WARNING: Major Spoilers Ahead
I am of the Generation who made Star Wars the franchise it has become. I saw the first film (now called Episode IV: A New Hope and sitting in the fourth spot chronologically) when I was 12 years old in Phoenix, Arizona, and saw it subsequently 25 times that summer. The saga of Luke and Leia and Han and Darth Vader was and is a part of the fabric of my own narrative. I once posited that the cut-off for age on whom I could date was anyone too young to have seen the first Star Wars in the theater, which was a great idea. Until I met my wife who wasn't born until three years later (but is still a huge Star Wars fan).
Luke Skywalker and his George Bailey beginnings of thwarted dreams and whiney frustrations being thrust into an epic mentorship with the misanthropic Obi-Wan Kenobi—a Jedi Master so broken by the failures of his religion and failure as a mentor to a previous student that he chose to exile himself on a desert planet—spoke to me as a kid. The rogue Han Solo. The heroic and snarky Princess Leia. The idea that there is a Force that surrounds us, containing both Light and Dark within each of us, was compelling and affirming to a boy who understood the paradox of wanting to be Good but also wanting to be Bad.
Twelve years old. Twenty-five times in the theater as this was long before even Betamax and certainly before cable TV. Star Wars is as a much a part of me as my puberty, a cloak in my coming of age story, a pop culture anchor that has helped me to see where I'd like my place in all of this to be. It's mine so don't fuck with it.
Lucas almost lost me, however, with the midichlorians.
The idea that only the elite could harness control of the Force, that one needed to be born into that power smacked of Monarchy, of Catholicism, of the stripe of Patriarchy so embedded into our culture and trumpeted most vocally by the Republican Party, seemed wrong. The story of Luke was one of an ordinary kid (like me!) who, with the right training, could become greater than his desert-bound destiny. Now, with Anakin's virgin birth (WTF?) and the legacy of genetic inheritance, only those of a specific lineage could do it.
Yes, The Phantom Menace tries to explain that midichlorians are symbiont beings within all of us but the message is clear: only those born with more of them can truly do all the cool Jedi shit.
With Johnson's The Last Jedi, this myth is upturned. Not just upturned but gleefully burned down like a tree protecting my precious cultural touchstones being torched by an old friend. Johnson revisits the concepts behind the Force and Luke—now a Jedi Master so broken by the failures of his religion and failure as a mentor to a previous student that he chose to exile himself on a water planet—gives Rey the 1970s New Age version of it sans the genetic hogwash.
We find out later in the film the answer of who Rey's parents are—to the Big Question of Abrams' The Force Awakens. Fans during the two years in between have gone rabid speculating and, I'll confess, I really wanted her to be Leia's daughter. The fact that her parents were drunks, simple traders who didn’t care about her, even as she trains under the legendary Luke Skywalker is jarring and wonderful. This flips the narrative from a saga of a Royal Family to a larger, more egalitarian story.
Yes, the fanboys will rail against the truth of this as it is Kylo who tells her but the look on her face says that she knew it all along and why would he lie about that and, like all fanboys, as I have embraced the smashing of my action figures from Nostalgia Lane, I want it to be true.
It suddenly opens everything back up and rightly concludes with a single shot of a poor, slave boy with a broom subtly using the Force to simply pull the broom to his hand. It is the single most hopeful image of the entire series of movies—this enslaved boy on a casino planet created to cater to the 1 percent (arms dealers, no less) who has the same control of the Force as a Skywalker.
We of Gen X don't all like this change. I was thrown off by so many of the tropes of the existing canon being subverted: Poe Dameron (our new Han Solo replacement) is a bit of an asshole and wrong over and over again, the slicer portrayed by Benicio Del Toro seems to be a Lando stand-in but he does not have a heart of gold and betrays Finn and Rose without a last minute conversion to nobility, Snoke is not the Big Bad and is snuffed out so quickly as to indicate that all of the fan-based speculation was as unimportant as Snoke now appears to be.
This is a Star Wars rooted in the idea that we of Gen X failed to beat the Empire. That our delusion of ourselves is not reflected in our feelings of exceptionalism. Rey and Kylo Ren and Poe and Finn are the Millennials we failed and it is now their story, their fight, their destiny.
With Trump in the Big Seat and the GOP sitting in the majority of Congress, with open racists and misogynists coming out of the woodwork like stormtroopers and First Order acolytes, it is obvious we might have destroyed the Death Star but these fuckers keep coming back because the Force has an equal balance of Dark and Light.
We elected our own Luke Skywalker in Barack Obama and, despite his belief in the Light, he failed.
We now have Rey who wields the Force with a rage-filled scream and a ferocity that flies in the face of all the teachings of Yoda and Kenobi. We now have Finn, so confused and earnest in his hatred of the First Order that he goes on a suicide run to destroy a big gun. We have Poe who, in his distrust of those in command and arrogant belief in his own flawed judgment, foments a mutiny within the Rebel Alliance. We also have Rose with her simple belief that we win by saving those we love instead of destroying those we hate. It's a messy sort of hope but one that recognizes that this fight between Dark and Light is never truly over.
I have been accused of "hand-wringing about PC culture" of late and it's interesting that it took a sci-fi space opera to punch a hole through my frustrations. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a Star Wars for #Black Lives Matters and #MeToo and all the stridency with which I have come to be annoyed. The characters are more complicated, with recognizable failings and flaws, and not all of our heroes remain heroic.
And I love it. I can't wait to see what comes next.