The Last Jedi, Nerd Rage, and What the War Is Really About

What has the world come to? ME, the guy who only likes Star Wars "fine", defending The Last Jedi? But that's exactly what's going to happen in the wake of all the nerd rage surrounding this movie. It's going to get spoilery, so if you haven't seen it and plan to, come back later, or stick to the non-spoiler capsule review that's sure to come out on Sunday. I'm not going to take down every silly argument Star Wars fans (and Russian bots) have trotted out, or even snicker at how Star Wars fans essentially hate Star Wars (there hasn't been a good one in 30+ years, amirite?), but instead tackle the film's main theme, which I think addresses many of the criticisms. And damn you for making me do this, nerds. Damn you all to hell. (Plus, since writing this, I've seen others online say some of the same things; hopefully there's something at all original in there for you.)

First of all, yes, there's an actual THEME to The Last Jedi, and through Episode 8, a sense that this is also the third trilogy's overall theme. Episodes VII-IX are about a new generation wresting control of the world from the previous one. It's Millennials vs. Baby Boomers. As someone who falls between the two generations, I may be well suited to see the "war" play out on screen and recognize it, and no, I don't think it's a coincidence the film starts with the Rebels losing all their bombers (bombers/boomers).

On both sides (Imperial/Rebel), there is conflict between the young and the old. It's not a question of Boombers-evil, Millennials-good. There is a generational gap on both sides. But the movie itself places itself in the Millennial camp and the trilogy is at least partly devoted to giving the old heroes a send-off. But if we're replacing Luke, Leia and Han, what are we replacing them with? What did they represent? What is "My father's Star Wars", and what is mine?

Because make no mistake, it IS my father's Star Wars that's being rejected in The Last Jedi. Even the newest film of the original trilogy is more than 30 years old at this point, and the original film just hit 40. Subsequent generations grew up with the films, making it intergenerational, but even Gen-Xers and Baby Busters are getting long in the tooth at this point. The kids, teens and twentysomethings now going to see genre movies have their own heroes, and those heroes must reflect their reality. And I'm sorry to bring up the prequels, but those failed partly on this same basis - they did not manage to reflect the values of youth in the early 2000s.
So what we have in the new trilogy, and what The Last Jedi decides to focus on, is Millennial values and attitudes. It's present in the casting, certainly. As with Rogue One, the cast is diverse. But more than that, it puts the diverse characters in positions of authority and/or positive heroism. The fascist First Order are Nazis controlled by mostly white men, the whitest of which, Hux, is a total lame duck - by DESIGN, as we find out. Poe Dameron is the malest male on the Rebel side, and is consistently shown to make the wrong decisions, while female authority figures struggle to keep him under control. Narrative conventions tell us he's a maverick and that therefore Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo is an obstructionist bureaucrat, but the film subverts that old (and it IS old) trope by making all those plans turn awry. The effect on the spot is to make certain side-missions seem pointless, but that's because the movie hasn't gotten to the point yet. Ultimately, the point of not just diversity casting, but diversity-makes-right as well, is that Millennials recognize themselves better IN that diversity. And this is their universe now.

And then there's Luke Skywalker. In refusing to help Rey do what he, at her age, did, he's very much cast in the Baby Boomer mold. He's the hippie who participated in all the civil rights demonstrations, but then became part of the status quo, and let cynicism and pragmatism take hold. Changing the world is for the young, resisting that change for the old. When he was a master and accidentally "created" Kylo Ren, it was out of fear of the younger generation, of what change it might bring. Kylo, feeling rejected, gives in to the Dark Side. Luke paints Rey with the same brush ("kids today...") and refuses to train her. The enlightened Yoda tells him Rey can't learn anything from the shrine that she doesn't already have access to. She's stolen the books, but saying it to Luke this way is a rejection of the old order and the old way of doing things. Luke would destroy the Jedi shrine to put an end to the faith he's rejected (so, with the same hubris he previously called out the Jedi for having), but Yoda does it because it's meaningless. The old ways are not inherently better, they're just a means to keep the status quo.

The Jedi shrine that is destroyed, then, might as well be George Lucas' six first films. Yoda tells us a master should teach his strengths and skill, but also, and most of all, his failures, then allow his student to outperform him. In other words, give the new generation everything, do NOT believe in you own "legend" (or think you are always right), and actively encourage it to succeed and do better. There is surely a reason that, on Jedi Island, there's a cave representing the Dark Side, and in that cave is a mirror that shows past and future. And that this is what Luke fears. That his past was a lie and that his future is about losing all he's worked for. Rey, on the other hand, does not fear the cave. And when asked to show her her parents, she sees only herself. In other words, she MADE herself.

And here we leave the Chosen One narrative long before Kylo Ren drops the big Truth (unless he's lying, Abrams may well decide to upend the revelation in the final film): There's nothing special about Rey's bloodline, nor does there need to be. This is also a film where the Top 1% are cast as immoral weapons dealers who get rich on the suffering of others. Manifest destiny, genetic/class exceptionalism, that's the old order. Rey is strong because she's had to be. And I really do hope they don't feel the need to pacify all the nerd theorist who are screaming bloody murder because they wasted their time dazzling their friends with genealogical exercises to tie Rey to the Skywalkers or Kenobis. If any of us can make a difference - and surely, that's embedded in the fabric of the film - then it's more important for Rey to be a nobody (just like Poe and Finn are essentially nobodies) - than for her to somehow be an anointed heir to a Forcetune. The Chosen One narrative has failed us in the real world; it's created more monsters than heroes. And guess what, that's always been true of that Galaxy far far away.
The Force is also recast in the film. Luke explains it, much as Ben Kenobi did, as something that ties all life in the universe together. That's not a retcon, it's a recon, ignoring the biological element of the prequels, which tied it back to bloodlines and genetic exceptionalism (which surely, is the Empire's thing). The way this manifests in the film itself is actually pretty neat. Everywhere we go in The Last Jedi, we find semi-sentient animals. They're a big part of this. Not just the porg comic relief that nest in the Millennium (there's that word again) Falcon, but the abused super-horses on the casino planet, and the crystal foxes on the salt planet. In both of those cases, the animals help the Rebels escape. In the former case, they are being tortured and forced into servitude by First Order collaborators. So there is a way to live in balance with nature (represented by these creatures). The foxes in particular are allowed to run into the Rebel base and no Rebel seems put off by it. They're part of the Force. Going back to our thematic discussion, which generation, policy-wise, do you think cares more about the environment?

All of this isn't to say the "Millennial" characters in the story are overwhelmingly positive figures (just as I do not mean to represent every individual Boomer or Millennial in this essay, only generational TRENDS). Kylo Ren is, of course, a youthful character who has given in to his generation's worst traits. He is prone to tantrums, feels like his heroes and parental figures have all abandoned him, and is self-destructive. He wants the whole world to burn. That's HIS solution to a corrupt status quo. No idealism, no hope, and that's why The Last Jedi drives that hope to the brink of extinction. So it can be reborn in our heroes. But Kylo may never be redeemed. When he turns against Snoke, it's not to embrace the Light. It's to go deeper into the Dark. He rejects this abusive father figure, and takes his place. He gives in to a youthful nihilism that only a generation that's been given the rawest possible deal might slip into. Faced with a "bad world", he wants to destroy it. Rey and her friends want to change it and save it. That's the conflict at the heart of the franchise, and never better spelled out.

A new generation may well embrace this paradigm, and take ownership of that an older generation might consider their foibles, as actual strengths. Finn proudly owning "Rebel scum" feels like one of the crispest summations of that idea.

And if Star Wars fans really rage as much as the Internet makes them out to, I have to wonder if they understand their favorite franchise at all. If you're angry the film makers didn't make the choices you would have, don't you know giving in to anger leads to the Dark Side? If you're angry at diversity casting, don't know you the Empire was based on the Nazis? If you're nitpicking about comical porgs, have you been hating Star Wars since the very beginning (oh don't wait for Ewoks, R2-D2 has been there from the first scene)? And if your beef is that The Last Jedi just rejected everything you thought made Star Wars what it is, that may actually have been the point.

It's about a REBELLION, guys. Or are your rebel years too far behind you to remember that?


snell said...

As a slight counterpoint to your boomers/millennials thesis, I should point out that the rebels survive only because of the plans and sacrifices of the older generation (Holdo and Luke) while the all of the younger generation's plans and running around not only fail, but are counterproductive, almost getting everyone killed...

Siskoid said...

Yes, but you have to ask yourself why. If the Vice-Admiral hadn't kept her plans to herself, Poe might not have gone off book. There's no reason for her to keep mum except she feels the older generation "knows best". By being condescending (which is also Luke and Snoke's problem), they alienate Poe (and Rey and Kylo).

And again, there's a push and pull here, because Millennial Poe is trying to take his place in the world, but so is the female Vice-Admiral.

Martin Léger said...

The eternal struggle of seeing younger people fail regardless of what you tell them. Yoda said it along the lines of "failure is best teacher" sometimes you're forced to see people fail because thats the only way they will learn.

Anonymous said...

GenXer here. I had a positive impression of this movie until you framed it in "Boomers bad, Millennials good" terms.

The thing that is likely to sink the Millennials is the same thing that sank the Boomers and every other generation: the youthful conceit that they can do no wrong, and the faith in principles that have never actually been put to the test. Such "principles" often turn out to be self-interest with an unrealistic self-image.

The bad thing that Luke allegedly almost did, to my way of thinking, is a much more positive way of framing this: the problem with idealism is that it inevitably smacks into the real world where there are no great solutions. Do you want another Darth Vader to appear in a decade? Well then you have a tough choice to make, and sometimes the right choice is the one that damns you while saving everyone else. Or sometimes, you inadvertently save everyone else by not taking the pragmatic course -- but more likely you're keeping your own hands clean and making everyone else pay the price. That's the central tension of being a good guy in a universe that doesn't always allow clean solutions.

With regard to how the young are rebels but then they eventually become custodians of the status quo, Ima let Ben Sisko handle this one:

Unknown said...

I must say that I stand with you on this one Siskoid.

While watching, I found myself conflicted often during the movie. Until I kinda got it. At some point, when my hero (being older) isolated himself completely, and the young hero (my new hero :D ) just left with a "fuck it, I'll do this myself" attitude. It hit me... these new young heroes are not part of the "rebellion" they came up in a "resistance". Resistance and rebellion are not the same. And these new heroes are the "new Rebellion", they now must rebel against the "first order" and against the Resistance. They need to go further.

This made me enjoy the rest of the movie and made me watch it again. I am, if by my generation, part of the Resistance, but in my heart, I will always be a Rebel. Being a rebel makes me stand with this new generation of heroes.

This movie made one of the saddest parts of The Force Awakens even sadder. Han's death, is now so hard... He died because he represented the older generation, but he was also a sacrifice of the rebelion, Han wasn't part of the Resistance... He left. Not that he didn't believe in what the Resistance did... He failed the resistance, he failed his familly, he failed at everything, exept one thing... he was always a rebel.

Siskoid said...

Anon: Crap, I ruined it for you? I quite like that there's no single answer about who's right. You're right about wisdom vs. naivete, but I'm also right about idealism vs. cynicism. They're sides of the same coin. Whenever they talk about the Force, they talk about BALANCE, and you have to walk a narrow path lest you get lost. The characters in the story either walk it, or walk off it, but there's no "opinion" given necessarily. It explores the theme, it doesn't give a final answer or really take sides.

Bass: Great point about the semantics at work.

Siskoid said...

Someone on twitter just mentioned "salting the earth" as another metaphor for putting an end to continuity. I like it.

Tim said...

Yoda's comments about there being nothing in the library Rey didnt already possess was because she'd already removed the texts and stored them away on the Falcon.

Siskoid said...

Do we actually see that?

Even if we do, Luke doesn't know that, so the message stands.

Martin Léger said...

When Finn opens a drawer to give a blanket to Rose, you see the books in there as well.

Jonathan Sargeant said...

I find your reading of the film very persuasive!

To me, the key was Yoda's line, "Failure, the greatest teacher is...".

Every plan in the film fails but it is how characters react to these failures initially or eventually that cast them in a different light. Whether the duality is between optimism/pessimism, or a desire to exert control versus a kind of zen "bending with the wind", or even activism/passivity, each character has an arc defined by response to failure, I think.

I think many 'fans" have objected on a superficial level to a distinct lack of chest-beating triumphalism. It's a little lazy thematically to say this but that how Empire Strikes Back can be perceived, too...

Anonymous said...

"Crap, I ruined it for you?"

Probably not. I'll eventually see it, and when I do, if it's really as "Millennials Good, Boomers Bad" as you make it sound, I'll despise it on its own terms.

There is a lot I am tempted to say, as I have been embroiled in American politics for the past several years and I am disgusted by most of my countrymen. So let me just say that the "innocence" of youth is wholly overrated, and the only good that comes with it is the potential for enlightenment. The willingness to listen and learn in humility (while still reserving the right to question and challenge) remains the best way to achieve that potential, no matter what Yoda says.

"but I'm also right about idealism vs. cynicism. They're sides of the same coin."

I disagree on that one. Idealism is, ideally, about looking for the good despite being aware of the overabundance of bad. Cynicism is just useless refusal to engage. I don't even see that they're on the same coin. If idealism is sharing a coin with anything, it's with pragmatism.

The trolley problem remains a point of fascination because nobody has come up with truly satisfying solutions -- the (life-respecting) principles that allow one to perceive one outcome as at least marginally better than the other, also deem that better outcome to be intolerable. The idealism / pragmatism coin just flips and flips and flips.

Brian said...

My generational take on the film and its characters is slightly different, based on looking at the directors involved in the trilogies.

The classic and prequel trilogies were directed by Baby Boomers. They dealt with a generation of chosen-one characters meant to change (or save) the universe.

The sequel trilogy is directed by Generation X. They deal with a generation of latchkey-kid characters coming to terms with a universe that was never quite saved by the aspirations of the last generation.

The next trilogy will likely be directed by some Millennials and focus on characters talking on the Holonet while they built hip new galactic startups... ;)

Siskoid said...

Brian: Totally valid.

Anon: It's not so much a Good/Bad as an exploration of the gap between then, and (in more universal terms) the younger generation seeking to go their own way, and mostly failing. But you gotta let 'em try, is what the film seems to be saying.

As for the idealism and cynicism, they're on the coin of what trap we may fall in based on our age's point of view. You're only idealistic because you haven't seen enough. You're only cynical because you've seen too much. Or so each side would tell the other.

mindbait said...

I find it quite odd though that there seems to be this attitude online of "she should have just told him the plan" as if he had a right to know. Holdo was in charge, Poe was a fighter pilot in a situation that did not require fighter pilots. Nobody else was demanding explanations except for him. Everyone else was willing to obey orders from a decorated admiral famous for many tactical military victories.

Unknown said...

My problems with this movie and the previous one is the poor writing. It requires us to believe that in the intervening decades between VI and VII that everyone in the galaxy became sub 50 IQ morons. And for all the insistence that it's a break with the past and a new direction, they recycle so much of the original movies. I mean, how many moon sized superweapons have to be built before someone realizes it DOESN'T WORK. And the idea that the core of the Republic is several planets within sight of the naked eye in the same solar system, and that taking them out renders the ENTIRE REPUBLIC ready to surrender, even though said superweapon has already been destroyed? I accepted, that due to age, that my favorites wouldn't survive these movies, but I would have appreciated beter than "Han does something stupid, and ack! he's dead". These scripts were just lazy, and there's no excuse for it.

Siskoid said...

But no joke, those have been problems since the beginning. Even if you don't want to consider the prequels (which are dumb as rocks and have terrible plotting - essentially just the thinnest of threads to connect set pieces Uncle George really really wanted to do), even the originals had writing problems. The dialogue was never very good, very ordinary in fact. By the third movie we're already doing the Death Star again. Twists are obviously pulled out of asses because they don't connect well with the previous films. In fact, TLJ shares a lot of its problems with Empire and Return.

This franchise has always been like this. Always!

I don't even think Han did anything particularly stupid in TFA. But in the context of the discussion above, he's the one who HASN'T changed since the first trilogy, and that's particularly SAD. And it's meant to be. The universe has moved on without him, and his boyish smirk and cavalier attitude isn't so cute anymore.

I completely agree that plot points are recycled a heck of a lot, and if you want to say it doesn't break with the past ENOUGH, I will agree with you. But let's not pretend, beloved though it is, that the Star Wars franchise somehow used to be a bastion of good writing.

Stu Ordana said...

But I did not want to watch a movie about millennials and baby booomers. I wanted to watch a movie about Star Wars.

Siskoid said...

I'm not even sure what that means.


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