The Last Jedi Wars: The Generational Fight Over the Meaning of Star Wars
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest installment in the Star Wars saga, has now been in theaters for almost a month. Director Rian Johnson’s film has drawn rapturous critical reviews – 91% positive on Rotten Tomatoes – while also tearing up the box office. It’s already the #1 movie of the year, with a domestic gross of over $500 million.
However, there’s been somewhat of a backlash against the saga’s latest entry. Some fans have hit it with a series of complaints – it’s too long, the characterizations of Luke Skywalker and other characters are wrong and off, they really hate the Rose character and her entire plot, the Porgs are stupid, and more than anything else, it just doesn’t feel like Star Wars.
Yes, it takes risks, and yes it takes Star Wars in new directions, but that’s the best thing about it.
As someone who loved the film (review here), I disagree with all of these and more. The Star Wars universe is a wonderful place to spend time and I don’t mind being there for two and a half hours. The Luke of The Last Jedi strikes me as an absolutely plausible approximation of where Luke Skywalker would have ended up – it’s a wonderful character arc with a killer payoff. The Finn/Rose plot is all about atmosphere, which I didn’t mind at all, and the Rose character is one who means a lot to a lot of people. The Porgs are not only firmly in a long tradition of cute Star Wars characters, but they and Chewbacca have a wonderful, completely unspoken story arc. And most importantly of all, what Star Wars “feels like” is different to many different generations of people. Yes, it takes risks, and yes it takes Star Wars in new directions, but that’s the best thing about it.
The Old Republic
For a very long time, Star Wars fandom meant a certain thing: Fans, mostly male, who grew up in the ‘70s or early ‘80s and experienced all or part of the original trilogy on a big screen either as small children or as teenagers, considering them foundational texts of their film appreciation and their childhoods themselves. These people, who grew up watching the original films over and over again on VHS and later DVD, were disappointed by the special editions of the late ‘90s, were outraged by the prequels, and have had mixed reactions to The Force Awakens and other Disney-era Star Wars films.
…longtime diehards are, at this point, only a small fraction of Star Wars fandom, and one that’s only going to get smaller as the years go on.
As someone who, at age 39, was part of the younger side of that cohort, allow me to say this – ‘Star Wars fandom no longer belongs to the original generation.’ Four decades worth of younger fans have discovered and appreciated these movies over time, watching the existing and new films at their own pace, and sometimes discovering the saga through the Clone Wars or Rebels TV series. And the younger viewers’ opinions about specific matters of contention may not match those of their parents, or some cases, their grandparents.
For those kids, Star Wars is theirs just as much as it is ours. And the longtime diehards are, at this point, only a small fraction of Star Wars fandom, and one that’s only going to get smaller as the years go on. These are movies for kids, and when it comes to Star Wars, I’m a lot more concerned what the 10-year-olds think than about what the 40-year-olds think.
Just look at the big picture: These are the most-watched movies each year, meaning that the Star Wars fandom is unfathomably large. It was never, despite what you may remember, a small subculture of nerds – Star Wars movies have been tearing up the box office since 1977 – but now it’s as close to a monoculture as we have. The movies’ fandom, along with its casts, have also become less white and less male over time.
Star Wars fandom is unfathomably large. It was never, despite what you may remember, a small subculture of nerds…now it’s as close to a monoculture as we have.
This has led to a series of campaigns by the pathetic garbage people of the alt-right, who launched an attempt to hack the Rotten Tomatoes audience score that was seen through almost immediately. These bottom-feeders are now 0-for-3 in campaigns to derail the Disney-era Star Wars movies for the horrible sins of including women and minorities in the galaxy far, far away. Someone should show those clowns the Hooper X speech from Chasing Amy.
But myopia about Star Wars doesn’t require actual racial prejudice or pigheaded views about gender. Sometimes it’s just a model of tunnel vision.
The Grand Narrative
A certain narrative has been pushed over the years by the original Star Wars fanboy cohort, and it goes like this: The original trilogy, of course, is sacrosanct (or perhaps just the first two films, depending on how one feels about the Ewoks.) The 1997 special editions were an abomination that desecrated the perfection that was the Holy Trilogy, while the no-good prequels represented the final betrayal, leading to the hyperbolic proclamation that “George Lucas raped my childhood.”
The ur-text for this narrative is the viciously whiny 2010 documentary The People vs. George Lucas, during which a whole bunch of entitled middle-aged men railed for 90 minutes against the man who had created the very thing they love so much. This documentary, among other sins, has schlubby, unshaven, hostile fanboys treating Greedo shooting first with the anger and gravity that most people treat police brutality and world hunger. And the “George Lucas raped my childhood” line, for obvious reasons, isn’t something that anyone should say out loud today.
…the original three films, great as they are, are far from perfect, with a whole lot of subpar acting, less-than-pristine dialogue, and the sort of sluggish pacing that’s synonymous with the cinema of the 1970s.
The Original Trilogy Uber Alles narrative, furthermore, has a whole lot of holes in it. For one, the original three films, great as they are, are far from perfect, with a whole lot of subpar acting, less-than-pristine dialogue, and the sort of sluggish pacing that’s synonymous with the cinema of the 1970s. And yes, they were full of the very things that people say they hate about the prequels and Disney films – most notably, cute creatures, soft characterizations, and silly and corny jokes.
The ’97 Special Editions, for the generation a few years younger than the original fans, represented something truly important that’s not much remembered: It was the first-ever chance to see the movies on the big screen, after years of watching VHS copies on old, tiny, CRT TVs. I was a freshman in college that spring and we all went to the theater and cheered. And while you can question Lucas’ changes (I certainly have), he was the director, making changes to his own films that he created. It wasn’t like when Ted Turner colorized other people’s classic movies in the 1980s.
As for the prequels, the general critique stands: They’re plagued by horrendous dialogue, a plot way too dependent on boring political disputes, bad choices in casting of key roles and, of course, Jar Jar Binks. But there’s a lot more good in the prequels than people remember: The Phantom Menace, thanks to the Duel of the Fates sequence, has a killer third act. The fighting-Yoda part of Attack of the Clones was pretty exciting at the time, and Revenge of the Sith had a satisfying ending, including a perfect final shot. And all of those movies, subpar as they are, are set in the Star Wars universe and full of the Star Wars stuff we all love.
Another thing about the prequels: I was camp counselor in the summer of 1999, after the release of The Phantom Menace, and my campers were 8-year-olds. And they all loved Jar Jar.
As for the new Star Wars films, sure there are arguments. But I’m yet to meet a kid under 12 who saw The Last Jedi and didn’t love it.
From Generation to Generation
When George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, which meant both new Star Wars movies and Lucas’ retirement from any direct involvement with them, Lucas had that generational issue on his mind.
For the past 35 years, one of my greatest pleasures has been to see Star Wars passed from one generation to the next,” Lucas said in a statement at the time. “I’ve always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime.
This idea of Star Wars and the generations has been on my mind a lot too, as I’ve introduced the movies to my two sons over the last few years. I showed them the original trilogy first, and multiple times, although the Empire Strikes Back surprise was somewhat ruined a few months before when one of them got a toy Darth Vader mask that said “I am your father.” I showed them the prequels once each, while dabbling in the TV series, while I’ve taken them to each of the three new movies on the Saturday of opening weekend.
…the reactions of an 8-year-old taking in the wonders of the stars and spaceships and heroes means infinitely more than that of a guy in his 40s who’s disappointed in the verisimilitude of how Yoda looks.
They wear Star Wars clothes all the time and even had ‘Jedi training’ at Disney World last spring. I’ll let them make their own decisions about which movies are their favorites, and which of them represent the ‘real’ Star Wars.
It’s important not to lose sight of this – ‘these movies are for kids.‘ And the reactions of an 8-year-old taking in the wonders of the stars and spaceships and heroes means infinitely more than that of a guy in his 40s who’s disappointed in the verisimilitude of how Yoda looks.
I mean, in the last scene of the The Last Jedi, kids are playing with a Luke Skywalker toy.