You’d think that a movie which grossed over $2 billion worldwide, and re-ignited a franchise, wouldn’t need defending. You’d presume that a film that made just under a billion domestically last year wouldn’t be the subject of a ton of smart-alecky criticism. Yet here we are.
South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone have a remarkable, and brilliant, ability to cut to the heart of all matters pop-cultural and, like an intelligent playground bully, come up with a dismissive, all-encompassing nickname that sticks. (As an Avatar fan, I still find it infuriating that any aesthetic and narrative defenses of the film are so often met with a “Dances With Smurfs” joke.) And recently, in a season-long arc involving the presidential election and nostalgia, they’ve found a way to do so once again. “Member-berries,” sentient fruits that anaesthetize consumers by providing them sweet, sweet memories from childhood, are blamed not only for a Star Wars sequel that supposedly nobody really liked as much as they pretended, but also for the rise of Mr. Garrison, the bigoted back-to-the-’50s teacher who’s a blatant stand-in for Donald Trump as a political candidate. (Curiously, voting for Hillary Clinton is pitched as the antidote, with no acknowledgement as yet that supporting her might have some basis in nostalgia for her husband.)
It’s a common criticism, if an ironic one coming from anyone who complained the prequels weren’t similar enough to the original Star Wars trilogy: The Force Awakens is just a remake of A New Hope, a.k.a. the first 1977 Star Wars movie. But is it accurate? I’d argue it is not.
Yes, patterns repeat in Episode VII. The Evil Empire is gone, and an evil First Order with a multi-planet-destroying weapon exponentially bigger than the Death Star is back. You know, like how Russia last week announced they have a bigger and better nuclear weapon than ever that could wipe out a whole country, rather than the Soviet Union’s nukes, which were mere city killers. And yes, once again diplomacy has failed and war is happening again, just like in reality. And we could certainly make an argument about potential dictators not learning from history, by comparing Napoleon’s invasion of Russia to Hitler’s. But let’s set even that aside for a moment.
The key to understanding The Force Awakens is in George Lucas’ comparisons, at the time of release, of Return of the Jedi to the Vietnam War. He said Emperor Palpatine was based on Richard Nixon, and the victory of the Ewoks was inspired by the way the Viet Cong outlasted the U.S. military’s technologically superior forces. Okay, yes, it’s insulting to those of us who have Vietnam veterans in the family to compare them to Stormtroopers, but let’s be generous and assume Lucas didn’t think it out that far, beyond the notion that the Battle of Endor is the Vietnam War. If Luke, Han, and Leia are therefore the space equivalent of the Baby Boomers/Vietnam generation (as J.J. Abrams’ parents were, more or less), then Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren are Generation X. And it’s in that analogy that their motivations begin to make sense.
One of the major symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which finally started to be diagnosed properly in Vietnam veterans, is a retreat to comfort zones; you see this in vets who’d rather sleep outside than indoors, or go back into combat rather than interact with peaceful civilization again. The Force Awakens makes a point of noting that Han Solo and Leia Organa have done this – he by running away to smuggle again, and she by running an underground military rather than governing – but does so less with Luke Skywalker, who has fled into meditation at the first sign of danger in his Jedi Academy; and R2-D2, who has had perhaps the most realistic PTSD reaction of all, in that he has shut down completely, only communicating with the outside world again when BB-8 can finally add to his programming with a missing piece. (C-3PO, always neurotic, remains so, and ironically (arguably) has coped the best, perhaps because he willingly shares his feelings and anxieties to all who’ll listen.)
So what happened to the children of the Vietnam generation? They felt lost, confused, nonconformist yet wanting to belong to something. The term “Generation X” was coined to sum up a group that had no one common factor save an unwillingness to be labeled, and perhaps an insecurity of their place in the world due to narcissistic and absent parenting, sometimes deliberate (overly hedonistic hippies) and sometimes not (emotionally isolated combat veterans). And yes, some grew up healthy and moored. The Force Awakens represents all of this.
The common factor uniting Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is separation. Finn was forcibly taken from his parents as procedure; Rey was left alone presumably as a consequence of larger events; and Kylo was abandoned by his father into the care of his loner uncle. All three reject the path they’re on: Finn, most notably, bails on the Stormtrooper profession as soon as he realizes what it entails; Rey ends her fruitless wait for her parents’ return once the realization is forced upon her; and Kylo/Ben embraces a dark lord who listens to all his concerns rather than an absent father whose comfort zone is elsewhere, or a religious fundamentalist (from his perspective) uncle who teaches a detached philosophy. Poe is the rare well-adjusted kid, though it’s telling that his character was not initially supposed to survive the first act of the movie.
Their quests for identity and agency define the new trilogy, just as Luke’s journey to noble knighthood and Han’s arc from uncaring smuggler to loving protector did in the originals. Finn, failing to find meaning in either the militaristic First Order or his own PTSD solution of running away, will earn his place in the Resistance. Rey, no longer living waiting for a dream that never happens, will finally see her way to being a hero by finding a larger cause. And Kylo, whatever the fates have in store, will define himself apart from the baggage of his war-veteran father. None of them even have safe spaces to return to; their quests are to find one in the first place. Poe can do what he likes; he’s all good.
But hey, by all means, dismiss that as “‘member TIE fighters?” if you like. Just understand that in real life, ‘membering patterns of actual wars helps you repeat the mistakes of the previous ones, even as humans are drawn to do exactly that. Heaven forbid a movie pick up on that notion. The problem with South Park‘s take is that it implies our memories are a mindless comfort blanket, while in fact, The Force Awakens shows that they come back to haunt us and exact a toll. Han pays for denying his memories with his life. Luke pays with his religion-philosophy nearly being erased. Leia pays in loneliness and betrayal by her only child.
The trilogy after this, where our future heroes will represent millennials, is the one to worry about. Can heroes arise in a universe where everyone is watching Twi’Lek porn on the comlink?
If you like what you’ve just read, please check out my other articles on Forbes. I promise they’re mostly as good as this one.
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