Note: This essay contains spoilers about the plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Like, real spoilers.
The rebellion against the evil First Order is in trouble, and Finn (John Boyega) has an idea. The young Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance-fighter, part of a new breed of Star Wars heroes, has put himself and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) into a sticky situation. But he has a solution: “We’ll figure it out! We’ll use the Force!” Solo, grizzled and and gray-haired, grumpily retorts, “That’s not how the Force works.” Kids these days, always looking for a shortcut, am I right?
J.J. Abrams’ much anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens hones in on the family-drama aspect of George Lucas’ creation in a particular manner that makes very specific sense, given the contemporary cultural atmosphere. It’s the ultimate battle of good and evil, of light and dark – and also of “darn those kids and their selfies” and “you ruined the economy for us anyways”: the baby boomers and the millennials.
The most striking element of The Force Awakens is how overtly it juxtaposes its characters against a world – or universe, rather – that has fallen, that is decaying. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is seen hopping on a little makeshift sled as a gigantic ship from the Empire lies in the sand, dwarfing her. The planet she lives on, Jakku, is struck with a kind of poverty that seems even worse when compared to that of the decrepit and dusty Tatooine. Rey sells junk parts for rations of food, her family gone. Elsewhere, everything is in pieces, including the Millennium Falcon.
The subtextual dialogue between generations isn’t as polemical as it has been in other recent films that have tacitly covered the subject, such as the horror film Unfriended, which takes a stance that’s in keeping with anti-millennial rhetoric. If one thing can bring people of all ages together, it’s Star Wars, even the more overtly political and controversial prequel films. But what’s particularly striking is the way that the generations inside and outside of the film function, both in terms of the characters and the audience. The presence of an inclusive cast and its retread of Star Wars’ narrative beats are like a reclamation of the original film trilogy (which was dominated by an all-white cast) by new voices, from Ridley and John Boyega to Lupita Nyong’o and Oscar Isaac (and Adam Driver, if you read Brooklyn hipsters as villains — which you might, after While We’re Young).
Father/son relationships are core to the Star Wars saga, but The Force Awakens’ intergenerational subtext makes that dynamic more potent contextually, with characters old and new explicitly in tension. Not to discount the importance of Luke and Vader’s relationship, but the interpersonal connections and the cross-generational appeal of Han Solo and Kylo Ren’s relationship is an interesting manifestation of baby boomer/millennial tension.
Boomers and millennials go at it in endless think pieces, often with the younger generation written off by the elders as narcisstic, lazy, and entitled. Kylo Ren embodies that rhetoric; once training to be a Jedi, he instead chose the path of the Dark Side for his own gain. (You know who also did that? Anakin Skywalker.) The latter blame their situations – economically and socially – on the previous generation. Ren is driven by power, and the film implies that he saw no benefit in training to be a Jedi. Perhaps paradoxically, while Kylo Ren exemplifies an argument that accuses a younger generation of being self-interested, he also debunks the claims of laziness, if not those of narcissism and entitlement. Regardless of the fact that he is taking orders from a quasi-Emperor Palpatine named Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), his stakes in the game are personal. Looking, nearly genuflecting, down upon the recovered, burnt mask of Darth Vader, he says, “I will finish what you started.” And while that sounds like his motivations are for some greater ideological cause, the origins of Darth Vader’s path to the Dark Side were personal.
The Star Wars universe – gradually decaying from film to film (chronologically) and its subtext becoming clearer – seems as broken as Gen Y writers posit reality is. Ross Pomeroy and William Handke scoff, “True entitlement is allowing the reasonable minimum wage that baby boomers enjoyed when they were our age to deteriorate while opting to cut taxes on the gains from stocks and bonds that they accrued during periods of debt-driven economic and stock-market surges – creating an economy where wage earners at all income levels, as of 2012, receive a smaller portion of economic output at any time since 1929.”
Kylo Ren, as the primary villain of the film, is the intersection of old and new, a convergence of both the arguments against and defenses of millennials. Ren is at once the primary character who would be the target of such claims of entitlement – in his desire for ultimate power – and the millennial who blames the previous generation of those that catalyzed the events that lead to galaxy’s current situation, in this case a governmental coup whose effects seemed to have had little positive effect in the Star Wars universe.
Baby boomers can give it as good as they can take it, and the gruff Han Solo and Chewbacca fire back as well as they ever did; there’s a clear sense of denial, in them, that their generation is accountable for how the galaxy operates now. The litany of allegations against millennials in the media represents an accusatory rhetoric, and, beyond Ren as the figurehead of the debate, it’s one that The Force Awakens does not abide by in the film.
It means, though, that heroes from this younger generation have to prove themselves in The Force Awakens. The subtle inclusion of concepts of validation and identity permeate the film, particularly in the various ways that Finn and Rey explore their identity through external factors: Finn does not define himself by the Stormtrooper helmet he once wore, and Rey evolves into someone who is not defined by her familial situation on Jakku. That Finn and Rey also represent a vision of Lucas’s universe that is more inclusive of both race and gender is both subtle and crucial to this flim’s subtext about the way millennials fixate on identity. The search for self-validation is an aspect of Gen Y’s proclivities which is written off – like selfies – but when such an exploration of identity proves useful, there’s a sense of validation for both the character and the audience. Rey’s background is mostly unknown to us; even her clothes are relatively nondescript, making her as much of an enigma as Luke Skywalker before her. But her versatility and acumen on the Millennium Falcon, an external factor to her identity, is enough to win Han Solo over. How one defines themselves via the intersections of factors like race, gender, and class — the core of identity politics — doesn’t impress an older generation: function and utility do.
The film’s supposedly throwaway references have been labeled as fan service, but contextually, such remarks as, “Is there a garbage chute?” – quipped by Han Solo on the Starkiller Base, when asked what to do with a captured Stormtrooper – suggest that the present generation must reconcile with the past, and vice versa. Though Abrams seems very interested in the friction and the dialogue surrounding this subject, he employs restraint (and humor) in approaching it. If the main dialectic of antagonism presents itself through the dynamic between Kylo Ren and his parents Han Solo and General Leia, then it allows Abrams to propose a version where both generations are able to save the galaxy. Abrams’ vision of the future is teamwork.
There’s a specific objective in mind, and the characters are forthright with their intentions. That these characters actively perform this intergenerational dialogue suggests that the subtext of the film is a future where the sins of the past are rectified by both the present and past generations. The ghosts of the past disappear in favor of a strategy or rhetoric more amiable and workable (in the form of bringing down Starkiller Base). Reconciliation with time and history even plays out, for comic purposes, between C-3PO and BB-8, who, while prodding R2-D2, is told that the latter droid has gone into low-power mode after the disappearance of Luke Skywalker. But it appears that dealing with the remnants of the past and picking up the pieces of the previous generation’s follies will be a crucial thematic through line throughout the new Star Wars trilogy.