The Politics of Star Wars: A New Hope for Millennial Resistance
I’ve always been a Star Wars fan, but I’ve never been a fanboy.
I remember the first time I watched Star Wars. My parents had taken me to our local independent video rental store. It was before corporate America (or as I like to call it, the Empire) had invaded our small American town with chains like Blockbuster.
While the convenience of streaming has made movie viewing easier than ever, I miss walking into the rental shops of my youth. I miss browsing the aisles & physically touching the tattered shrink-wrapped VHS sleeves. After collecting an armful of options, it would be torture to put all but one back on the shelf. However, this religious process gave the one film I chose so much more importance. Now we simply add a dozen movies to our Netflix list at once & then we forget to watch most of them.
While Star Wars has been implanted into the subconscious creative mind of every filmmaker born after 1970, the force & I collided years after our first meeting in the rental store. In 2006, I met a Jedi master. The highlight of my first ever international film festival was getting to meet director Irvin Kershner, the man responsible for The Empire Strikes Back, what many consider the best Star Wars film.
Some fanboys and fangirls have mixed feelings about the latest episode, but my feelings couldn’t be any less mixed. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the best piece of pop-cinema to come out within the past 15 years.
The Last Jedi is a not great because it's a Star Wars film, it’s great because first & foremost it's a great film.
The Last Jedi starts the same as all the others. “A long time ago, in galaxy far, far away…” You’re jolted by the fanfare of John Williams & soon scrolling text gets you up to speed. For a dose of action, we’re immediately thrown into a space conflict between The Resistance & The First Order. However, unlike many modern big budget films, after giving the audience their initial rush of adrenaline, writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick) tells the special effects department to take a back seat while he drives the Millennial Falcon (pun intended), putting story first. Where The Force Awakens thrived on its Star-Wars-ness, The Last Jedi thrives on its un-Star-Wars-ness. Instead of rehashing the same formula, Johnson crafts a story of modern relevance. It's a film with so many beautiful layers of subtext that here I am, days later, completely immersed in dissecting the great film that I just watched. If that’s not what a movie is supposed to do, then I don’t know what!
Some rebel scum are choosing to go to the dark side (Rotten Tomatoes) to give it a low grade. Many long for the return of George Lucas who gave them three of the most "intended-for-fans-only" films. Personally, I find episodes 1-3 unwatchable. Finally, a Star Wars filmmaker has made a film not just for fans, but for true lovers of cinema.
It’s hilarious to see fanboys & fangirls nitpick the newest film, criticizing the "scientific validity” of this film's depiction of a fictitious "Force". How dare the writer/director get creative & not follow the precise Star Wars formula! Perhaps after decades of pop movies whose sole purpose was to entertain & thrill, fans have been trained to prefer style over substance, but they forget what gave "The Force" its force: metaphor.
"The Force" has always been symbolic of spirituality & how we can choose to pursue good or evil. The Last Jedi is not about space. It’s not about laser swords & shooting things (although there’s plenty of that). It’s about holding onto what you love. It's about holding onto hope, even when all seems hopeless. It’s about honoring the past, while still empowering the next generation, as we look for creative ways to solve insurmountable problems. What better context for these empowering socially relevant themes other than using the pallet of our childhood heroes.
Our favorite films often surface in childhood. Millennials almost universally have a special attachment to the Indiana Jones films, the Back to Future trilogy & Jurassic Park, among other tales from Uncle Spielberg. However, out of all our classics, many of my millennial peers consider Star Wars their holy grail (despite the fact that Harrison Ford found the real holy grail in an entirely different franchise).
Ever since Spielberg decided to revisit Indiana Jones, I haven’t trusted the Jedi Masters of my youth. I’ve become a skeptic of big budget hollywood spectacles. So naturally, with the 9th Star Wars film, I did not allow myself to get crazy excited, lest I be let down… again.
Some of my peers went into the theater with hope, refusing to grow up entirely. I’m not one for the ever popular sport of millennial bashing (I’m always quick to point out the hypocrisy of certain elders who are blind to the fact that we millennials inherited a more bleak future then they did), however I can't help but notice our tendency to obsess about fictional worlds. After a week of feeling like a storm trooper at a corporate job, on the weekends many millennials unwind by taking off their white helmets & attend a cosplay convention to bring their favorite fantasies to life. However, even with all this dress up, are people missing the political implications of our most mainstream fantasies?
One thing I’ve never quite understood is the dichotomy between the overwhelming positivity of our biggest box office successes and the negativity in our practical application of our hopes & dreams in the world of politics. When you look at the highest grossing film franchises of all time, they all have one thing in common; they are all fantasies about good overcoming evil. Whether the battle is won by Marvel’s superheroes, young wizards or hiking Hobbits, audiences overwhelmingly want to see good triumph. Why then does it feel like in the real world evil wins? Why do we only manifest our best intentions into our art, but fail to put those same good intentions into practical application? Some people compartmentalize their political voice, but just as Luke Skywalker explains: the force connects everything.
Star Wars has never been void of politics. With a classic style of storytelling, it's often reminiscent of Shakespeare’s kings & queens of old. Until now, I’ve always found the politics of Star Wars to have little basis in the modern world. Lucas stated that episodes 1-3 were Bush-era political commentary, but if so the CGI got in the way, making it hard to recognize. The politics of The Last Jedi however, punch you in the gut as relentlessly relevant. It’s impossible to watch the new film without making the connections between the fantasy rebellion of the Resistance & the political resistance movement that’s grown momentum in 2017, even causing the Oxford dictionary to add a new word to its pages, “Youthquake.”
Youthquake is defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the action or influence of young people".
Let’s be honest. Even with our success of getting a new word in the dictionary, 2017 hasn’t been such a great year. Not for movies, not for politics, not for… well, pretty much: Every. Damn. Thing.
Every day, we’re on the edge of our seats. We wonder if our economy will collapse & even if it doesn’t, will corporate America’s death star of denial & misinformation destroy our home planet like Alderaan. We wonder if we’ll have access to health care, or if Kylo Ren & General Hux will target our medical ships. We wonder if we’ll have a free internet, or if repealing net neutrality laws will suppress our resistance efforts & make life harder for independent artists & freethinkers. We wonder if we’ll get tax cuts to help with our mounting bills, but our suspicions tell us that as usual, the Empire will fuck us. Conservatives & liberals have been at each other’s throats just like The First Order & The Resistance, proving that plenty of people are more loyal to their political label than they are to decency. On our most hopeless of days, we’ve even faced the reality that someone’s careless brash ego has brought us to the brink of nuclear war. However, we were allowed one positive cultural moment in 2017, and that moment happened in movie theaters all over the world this past weekend. Sitting in the theater, I was nearly brought to tears by how much hope and encouragement the filmmakers of Star Wars gave resistance fighters like me.
It’s been an especially resistant year for me. I attended & photographed my first protest (pictured right). My biggest creative undertakings have been about social activism, including a book about gender equality & two short films: Blake Byers Brought A Cigarette to A Gun Fight & Avery Road. Avery Road was even premiered as part of a benefit for Planned Parenthood entitled Stories of the Resistance; an event which proudly used the Star Wars rebel logo on it’s poster.
How many of us in society are paying attention to the lessons in our most popular modern allegories? Some think they can remove the political implication from their favorite works of fiction, but what is fiction if not a mirror held to society? The Last Jedi is allegory galore if you care to pay attention. In order to point out some of film’s most allegorical moments, I will warn you that the following contains many, many spoilers.
The brilliance of this piece of pop art is how it perfectly captures the modern social political climate. It shows a planet of run-a-muck capitalism where characters sell weapons to the highest bidder, "Business is business." It shows the Resistance movement quickly fall apart when they lack leadership & unity. While the Resistance battles itself for control, the First Order bombards them with never-ending attacks. Just like in the real world, the resistance movement is made up of all sorts of aliens, refugees, people of color & differing genders. At every turn there's a character that we've all seen in real life: the strong experienced feminist leader who still loses, the young feminist freedom fighter trying to find her place in the world, the reluctant hero that would rather escape, the arrogant liberal who rallies dissension convinced he knows best when his ideas are disregarded by the established leaders, the traditionally entitled young man who becomes disenfranchised when good people lose faith in him, the demagogue that capitalizes on the pain of the newly disenfranchised, & of course the wise spiritual leader who has lost his faith after seeing evil win too many times.
Luke Skywalker’s loss of faith represents the loss of faith that many of us experienced over the past year. That loss of faith has made us turn against our hope for any sort of bright future. The end of the new film mirrors our own “all hope is lost” moments. The First Order has hammered the Resistance the entire film & by the end we’re left with the smallest group of good guys in Star Wars history. Why? Because the good guys focused on their differences rather than their similarities.
By the end of the film we are presented with its biggest wisdom. The new character, Rose, sends chills down your spine when she saves Fynn from a traditional display of destructive heroism, “That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate. But saving what we love.”
For the final moment of the film, Johnson leaves our lead characters & instead chooses to fill the last few frames with a group of slave children. They play, retelling the fable of Luke Skywalker in order to fuel their dreams & hope for a better future. It's a hopeful vision that the fight for freedom is never over, but that with every new generation our potential is reborn.
For those who still believe in resistance. For those who still believe that we dreamers, artists & freedom fighters have a chance to overcome the modern manifestation of evil, The Last Jedi is just the rah-rah hope-fuel that you need after a year of being bombarded with bat-shit craziness. What better way to give resistance fighters hope than through the idols of our childhood fantasies.
We need to stop seeing hope as just something that’s fictional or impractical. We might not be involved in a high energy space battle every day, but the fight for peace, justice & equality is never over - it's something that we must constantly work on, generation after generation. For our survival & for our planet, it’s never been more important for the Resistance to work together.
Darkness grows from real pain. In a hostile social climate like ours, everyone is quick to lash out. We've fallen prey to the divide and conquer strategies of the enemies of peace. Empathy is a must, lest we disenfranchise more people, giving the dark side another foothold to capitalize on. We live in a world where most of us believe that we have to choose between the lesser of two evils, but the dark side is the dark side, no matter how you dress it.
When we fall prey to xenophobic rhetoric, we are giving into the dark side. When we refuse to give aid to homeless refugees, we are giving into the dark side. When we allow mass shooting after mass shooting to take place because we value the freedom to kill more than the freedom to live, we are giving into the dark side. When we give tax cuts to the wealthy at the expense of cutting life saving programs for the average person, we are giving into the dark side. When we believe nuclear war is an option, we are giving into the dark side.
Supreme Leader Trump has proven that he only wants to do one thing: kill & destroy. I understand why people voted for him. Like Star War's Snoke, he played to the pain of the once entitled & the newly disenfranchised. He gave them hope that a political leader would finally listen to them, but since being elected he's turned their hope into acid. He's doing nothing for the voters who voted for him, & even worse things to those of us who've always oppose him.
The dark side wants us to fight each other. Let’s hold on to what we love. Let’s hold onto the hope that we’re born with. Let’s all join The Resistance!