A lot has already been written about “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” and its meteoric ascent into the pop-culture canon after the mixed reaction to the prequels. One of the takes I liked best was how the very idea of doing a sequel to “Return of the Jedi” and its splashy happy ending turns the Star Wars saga from fairy tale to something bleaker and more realistic, facing the hard truth that war never really ends and evil is never really defeated. “One Death Star is a horror; two Death Stars and one Starkiller Base... is something more like the inexorable logic of history, grinding us all to dust.”
There are many reasons Episode VII feels like a bleaker world than Episode IV--one of them being that the backstory to Episode VII consists of movies we’ve actually seen and characters we already love. It’s one thing to kill off an old man we met in Act I as the climax to Act II; it’s another thing entirely to kill off an old man we got to know and rooted for as a young wisecracking scoundrel over the course of three movies.
Similarly, it’s one thing to vaguely imply something about the “Clone Wars” as an old, settled conflict and vaguely posit that that peace somehow led to the war we’re in right now (and to somewhat unsatisfyingly try to fill in the details of that transition with an ill-conceived prequel trilogy). It’s another thing to give us the happy ending we were promised at the end of three movies--celebrating Ewoks, exploding fireworks, our protagonists hugging and laughing and smiling--and then show us that happy ending collapsing into wrack and ruin years later with a new movie and a new war.
But there’s one particular thing that I haven’t noticed people talking about that I’ve felt nagging at me ever since watching “The Force Awakens.” Something that seems off compared to the unspoken “rules” of the original trilogy and the prequels, something that deeply undermines its message of hope--and something that’s all too clearly reflected in the real world of 2016.
In the new Star Wars, the bad guys are young.
In the original Star Wars films, the struggle looked pretty much like an intergenerational struggle--fresh-faced Luke and Leia, barely out of their teen years, and Harrison Ford as Han Solo acting the world-weary cynic at the ripe old age of 35.
The good guys, the heroes, were the youth, the new generation who saw the corruption of the system and were moved to stand against it. Hell, the conflict between Luke Skywalker and Uncle Owen in the first movie is a stock theatrical trope, the fiery young man eager to go on a “damn fool crusade” against the wishes of a father figure who wants him to stay home and play it safe.
The bad guys, the Empire, are the Establishment, the Man. They’re a bevy of middle-aged white guys with British accents in uniforms who seem in love with bureaucracy and procedure. There’s precious little passion in them, compared to the Rebels; instead they’re driven mostly by an officious sense of duty and sneering contempt for their inferiors. Stormtroopers idly chitchat about nonsense while pulling tedious shifts of guard duty, with no particular emotions about the Rebels except as “scum” to be exterminated. Middle-aged Imperial officers bicker over status at staff meetings, and the only time we see young faces among them it’s as a sight gag--the field-promoted Admiral Piett nervously stepping into the place of his recently Force-choked predecessor, the put-upon, in-over-his-head Moff Jerjerrod--pathetic figures, sellouts, the 1960s stereotype of a gormless milquetoast Young Republican.
The figures who were the animating force behind the Empire? The ones with real menace? The gaunt-cheeked elder statesman Grand Moff Tarkin. The terrifyingly decrepit Emperor Palpatine. And, of course, Darth Vader, who is literally Luke and Leia’s domineering dad.
The story George Lucas was telling was the story he grew up with, as someone who came of age in the 1960s. It’s a story of youth revolution. Yes, there are wise old mentors among the good guys, too--but the key thing about Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda is that they failed, and now Luke, Leia, Han and the dashing Lando Calrissian have to complete the task they left unfinished. Obi-Wan and Yoda, we eventually learn, are wrong to think that Darth Vader can only be defeated by force; Luke succeeds where they failed through empathy and love.
It’s almost unnecessary to point to the cut scenes from “A New Hope” with Luke and his friends hanging out in a small town on Tatooine eerily similar to the Modesto, California in “American Graffiti,” or to the Vietnam parallels in “Return of the Jedi.”
Star Wars is about liberals like George Lucas putting their hope in youth and youth culture to do what the New Deal Democrats of the World War II generation could not, to finally defeat bigotry and inequality and redeem the American dream. Star Wars was far from the only franchise from that era with that theme. And even though the 1960s were a high-water mark for Youth Culture as a phenomenon in the 20th century, it’s a narrative that’s been around before and after George Lucas--witness the imagery surrounding the messianic “millennial voter” in 2008’s mass celebration of “Hope.”
The problem, of course, is that there’s no guarantee whatsoever that history will progress as progressives wish it would generation by generation, or that youth in and of itself implies virtue. Today’s “The Man” was yesterday’s Angry Young Man; the System started somewhere.
The Star Wars prequels famously squandered the opportunity to make that point, manipulating the story so that the bad guys are still malevolent elderly authority figures, the gray-haired Senator Palpatine and Count Dooku, the comically bumbling wizened plutocrats of the “Trade Federation” and the “Banking Clan,” while our good guys are a 14-year-old genius political leader and an adorable kid Jedi who only falls to darkness in the last movie.
But look at Episode VII. Yes, there’s the weirdly inhuman Andy-Serkis-portrayed CG character “Supreme Leader Snoke.” But look at the frighteningly intense General Hux, whose impassioned speech against “disorder” makes the First Order feel even more uncomfortably close to the Third Reich than the Empire of the old movies. Look at the Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren, who takes Luke’s struggle with the Dark Side and inverts it, with his religious devotion to “darkness” and his stubborn insistence on resisting the “light.”
They’re both played by young actors--Domhnall Gleeson and Adam Driver are both 32 but look younger, and are associated in the public consciousness with youth. (Gleeson is probably best known to American audiences for his role as Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter movies and for playing a callow 20-something computer nerd in “Ex Machina.” Driver, of course, is the ur-dudebro boyfriend from “Girls.”)
They’re not pawns of older authority figures. The only authority figure above them in the film is Snoke, who’s present only as a hologram; for the bulk of the film Hux and Kylo Ren are the duumvirate directing the First Order’s activities, and they do so with relish.
There is still hope, yes. Finn and Rey, our heroes, “awaken” to the war that our former heroes are still fighting 30 years down the line and throw in on the side of freedom and justice. But the story of “The Force Awakens” is a story about a war that’s still going on in the first place because hope in the next generation failed--because young men like Hux were willing to throw all their talent and energy into rebuilding the grinding war machine Luke, Han and Leia destroyed. Because Kylo Ren, né Ben Solo, presumably grew up with the story of Darth Vader’s redemption and return to the light--and somehow rejected it, decided the cause Luke devoted his life to was a mistake and sought to bring back the evil cult Luke’s empathy and love had destroyed.
On one level that’s just necessary storytelling in order to give Luke, Han and Leia something to do in this movie besides “live happily ever after.” But on another level, as Gerry Canavan mused on his blog, it’s a message about the world we live in today.
Remember all that crap about how the older, racist generation--those wrinkly Grand Moff Tarkins and Emperor Palpatines--would inevitably eventually die out and the “political realignment” brought on by new, PC millennials would change everything? Remember the in hindsight darkly comic handwringing in 2008 about the possibility of a permanent Democratic electoral majority and the possible end of the Republicans as anything more than a regional rump party?
Remember how happy the left was on Nov. 5, 2008? Fireworks and dancing Ewoks and playing drums on the desks of ousted Republican congressmen?
Well, it turns out that there’s plenty of racism left to go around among the young and up-and-coming. It turns out that the younger generation, if frustrated enough or bored enough or simply contrarian enough, is more than willing to join up with old-fashioned reactionary mobs or create them anew from half-baked Internet philosophizing. It turns out that this generation of young men is just as willing as the past one to commit mass murder over fascist ideology as diseased as General Hux’s and petty projected grievances as disordered as Kylo Ren’s.
It’s unsurprising that Kylo Ren almost immediately got a parody Twitter account mocking him as a modern-day performatively angsty self-obsessed teenager. Kylo Ren is a perfect picture of what’s screwed up about too many young men--latching onto bizarre belief systems about racial or sexual superiority in an effort to feel big, to feel like they matter.
Look at Kylo Ren staring at Darth Vader’s mask--something he can’t possibly understand the historical context of, a relic of a conflict that ended long before he was born, something that its original owner needed to wear to survive--and deciding that he’s going to make it his symbol, that he, too, will wear a mask just because it’s cool. Much like young edgy American guys online deciding to take up the flag of Rhodesia and pre-apartheid South Africa--because it feels rebellious, transgressive, badass.
Comparisons have been made between the Kylo Ren character and the toxic masculinity of geek culture--and those comparisons are worth making. The community that calls themselves “nerds” online hasn’t shown its best face in the past couple of years, and we’ve received vivid demonstration after vivid demonstration that being young, tech-savvy and having all the information of the world at your fingertips does nothing to prevent a person from being a vicious bigot.
But it’s not just an “Internet thing” or a “geek culture thing” or a “gamer thing” or a “science fiction fandom thing.” It’s not something we can or should just laugh off. All over the world right now we have people recapitulating the sins of their fathers, signing up for ideological wars they have no direct connection to for petty, stupid reasons. We have the far-right theocrats of Daesh somehow convincing bored kids that religious fundamentalism is “punk rock.” We have young “alt-right” racist xenophobes mocking what was formerly the mainstream Republican platform as “cuckservative” and pining for the red-blooded, openly violent, openly white-supremacist conservatism of yesteryear.
We have the young people who run the booming tech industry entertaining thoughts of taking over the status of Gilded Age robber barons, defying or rewriting the law, establishing themselves at the top of society’s pyramid permanently thanks to the accidental confluence of wealth and political influence they find themselves in.
We have an abundance of bad ideas from the past that just won’t die, because the human impulses that spawn them haven’t died. As someone just turning 32--the age Domnhall Gleeson and Adam Driver were when they filmed “The Force Awakens”--I’m reminded, looking back over my own short life, how often people declared history to be over, the movie’s plot resolved, roll end credits. It was ridiculous to think that in 1992 and it was just as ridiculous to think so in 2008.
I keep hearing from people who want to know when the fight will be over and we can finally rest, when we can drop all this “Social Justice Warrior” nonsense and stop being on the alert for bigotry and hatred in the world. It’s frustrating and exhausting--you can see the weariness on Han and Leia’s faces in “The Force Awakens,” the toll it’s taken on them, living a life of running as hard as they can to stay in the same place.
The answer is that, to quote a much bleaker entry in the geek canon than Star Wars, “nothing ever ends.” There is hope, yes--no one has to keep fighting the war by themselves forever. For every Ben Solo who turns to the dark side despite all the hopes and dreams his forebears invested in him, there’s a Rey who seems to appear out of nowhere, bringing the awakening of hope with her.
But looking at the dismal statistics about racism and sexism among my own generation, the lesson I keep in mind is the lesson of the character of Finn--that no generation is imbued with virtue or insight simply because of being the ones who come next. Everyone has to ask, regardless of whether they’re following their parents’ values or their peers’, if they’re the stormtroopers and not the good guys, and doing the right thing will always require some measure of courage to fight against the crowd.
Our enemies, the ones that matter, aren’t our parents or grandparents--the real enemies will be our classmates, our colleagues, our brothers and sisters, our friends. The real test of our generation won’t be our ability to overthrow the last generation--every generation succeeds at that, in the end, if only through the passage of time. It will be our ability to overcome ourselves.