The earliest memory I have is from when I was three. It was Easter, and my family always gave each other gifts in egg baskets to celebrate. I received an Emperor action figure, as seen in “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.” Whether it was dream or reality — I cannot say — I clearly recall getting upset because the hand of my Darth Vader toy kept falling off, as it was supposed to.
Before I was old enough to buy my own FX lightsabers, my mother would make them out of wooden balusters from our staircase so that I could face my older brother’s teasing on a level playing field. Though those violent confrontations often ended with my ass getting kicked, holding even a pale imitation of a Jedi weapon gave courage to an otherwise frightened little boy. Even when it’s not helping me through difficult times, I love Star Wars.
What makes a Star Wars movie? I noted in last week’s review of “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi” that director Rian Johnson seemed to be trying to answer this question with his stylistic choices. Everyone’s own response is going to be subjective, but fan’s tend to use the Original Trilogy (OT) as the measuring tape. I myself actually compare everything to the very first film in the franchise, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.” Aside from laying the groundwork of its universe, its political allegory would drive the ideals of the entire saga.
George Lucas was influenced by Tolkien, Kurosawa films, “Flash Gordon” and Eastern mysticism when crafting the world of “A New Hope.” However, his primary inspirations for the Rebellion was steeped in the complexities of the decades leading up to the film’s release in 1977, starting with President Kennedy’s assassination. America soon became engaged in an imperialist war with Vietnam while its own politicians would be exposed as corrupt. Lucas based the Galactic Empire off of the American government, and the Rebels off of the Viet Cong. When asked if the Emperor was a Jedi, Lucas replied, “No, he was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name.”
The attitude of this low-budget sci-fi flick didn’t match the pervading American cynicism of the 1970s. Drawing from the hippie movement he supported, Lucas imbued the film with a pure optimistic idealism that carried throughout the OT. Star Wars’ response to tough times was its message that all we need to beat Big Brother with a mixture of courage, hope and maybe a little help from the Force. In my opinion, this has always been Star Wars at its core.
So imagine everyone’s surprise that Johnson’s narrative works to dismantle the romanticized storytelling of the OT, and turn its legendary icons into people with flaws.
In “The Last Jedi,” Luke Skywalker has decided that the Jedi Order he fought to restore are actually a bunch of failures — himself included — after his mistakes put the galaxy in danger once more. Rey seeks him out for help only to be disappointed, and her parents are revealed to be nobodies. In the grand scheme of things, she is what she makes of herself. Kylo Ren is not simply disappointed at his elders. He’s angry. He kills Supreme Leader Snoke (thought to be the trilogy’s “big bad”) to save Rey, only to turn on her for not joining him on his new mission. He wants to destroy every remnant of the old galaxy and create something new.
“The Last Jedi” distancing itself from its predecessors caught viewers off-guard. Since when does Star Wars trade escapist fantasy for a reminder that no one is special? That the heroes you thought were so cool are actually no better than us and deserve to be torn down? Other issues have been cited for turning viewers off like the film’s humor, dragging threads and the messy pace, but the most prevalent is a feeling that “The Last Jedi” betrays the essence of Star Wars.
I disagree. I argue that “The Last Jedi’s” own political allegory makes it feel closer in spirit to “A New Hope” than any other sequel, even “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.” Rey and Kylo Ren’s relationship with Luke Skywalker can be seen as Johnson’s way of saying that Star Wars needs to move beyond the OT to stay relevant, but it also embodies the generational gap between millennials and their parents.
The kids who saw the OT in theaters were led to believe that by the end of “Return of the Jedi” even the Ewoks can topple an empire if they believed it could be done. Maybe they brought that can-do attitude home with them and did their best to apply it everywhere they went. The year is now 2018, and no matter what creed or affiliation you identify with, at least we can all agree that the world still sucks. No one cause can be blamed, but there is a sense that youngsters are frustrated with their elders for perpetuating issues that should’ve already been eliminated.
Rey and Kylo Ren fall along differing ends of this mindset. Rey accepts that she isn’t inherently special, and builds herself with or without the help of elders. It’s a frustrating journey for the “average millennial,” but those who succumb to the allure of violent upheaval as a means of change are represented by Kylo Ren.
Luke’s role is depicting the elder, the one who maybe tried but failed to fix everyone’s problems. He proclaims his faith in the new generation by buying time for the Resistance to escape, while his sacrifice allows viewers a glimpse of the hero we remember. The same giddy hope that was offered in “A New Hope” is restored to the galaxy in “The Last Jedi.” Johnson’s wish to move past the OT brings that hope to everybody, not just exclusionary fans. “The Last Jedi” is a Star Wars movie, and one of the few that actually mean something.