[WARNING: If you haven’t seen The Force Awakens, but intend to, don’t read this. #spoilers]
Return of the Jedi was released in theaters in May 1983, eight months after my second birthday and five months after my father told my mother he didn’t love her anymore.
Countless Americans my age, or a little older or little younger, grew up without Dad in the house. The per-capita divorce rate hit its all-time high in the six years between A New Hope and Jedi. The teens and 20-somethings whose minds were blown by the original film became frazzled single parents, allowing their kids to steep themselves in Star Wars movies, toys and costumes.
With the release of The Force Awakens, many of us born in the time of the original trilogy finally have kids old enough to see and appreciate Star Wars, and the way it resonates with them resonates with us. In fact, the repetition of echoes and themes from the original saga have led many writers to complain that Episode VII is a thinly disguised rehash, reboot or remake of the original.
These people don’t get Star Wars.
Star Wars is an iteration of the Monomyth, the Hero’s Journey. Humans have been telling each other variations on this tale for millennia—just as the Jedi and Sith have been fighting one another for millennia. Of course this new Star Wars is a retelling of the same tale—but just like the first two trilogies, it’s an iteration that reflects and informs the time in which it was made.
Luke Skywalker begins as an adopted orphan, seeing all his friends growing up and doing cool things while he’s stuck on his uncle’s farm. He wanted something more, called to be a part of something bigger.
“He wanted me to go into his business,” George Lucas told USA Today of his father, back in 2008. “I said, ‘I’m absolutely not going to do it.'” Lucas told his office-equipment-salesman father he would “Never go to work every day doing the same thing day in and day out.”
Instead, Lucas created a film that’s a pastiche of all the fantastic tales that called him to filmmaking: Flash Gordon, Kurosawa movies, WWII dogfighting reels. The result was wholly original, yes, but also designed from the jump to make men like Lucas feel like teenagers again (and resonate with teenagers of the time):
Worth noting that STAR WARS marketed itself as nostalgia from the very beginning. pic.twitter.com/0khF7SUTHh
— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) December 19, 2015
But while men saw a younger version of themselves in Luke, desperate to get off the family farm and live a life of awesomeness, their children connected with Darth Vader. Larger than life, boundlessly powerful and ruthless to the point of cruelty, he commanded respect, fear, and awe of everyone in the saga.
Connect those two ideas: A generation of men set out to accomplish grand and epic things, and a generation of kids were desperate to connect with their great and powerful absentee father. Luke coming to grips with his father’s legacy and succeeding where his father failed didn’t just save the galaxy, it restored their relationship.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the struggle between light and dark was about choosing the path of peace (“I will not fight you, father!”) over the path of war (“Together, we can rule the galaxy!”). In the post-Cold War prequels of the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was different.
Fatherlessness, for Anakin Skywalker, was literal: In one of the groan-worthier moments of the prequel trilogy, he was the result of a virgin birth. Forced to grow up far too young, the bright and curious Anakin had to help his single mother make ends meet, was exploited by adults for all sorts of purposes and eventually whisked away by the Jedi.
Anakin was anointed the Chosen One, the subject of a prophecy, told from a small age his destiny was to use his unique, special talent to achieve great things. I mean, just check out his standardized test scores!
Lucas’ generation was told to get their head out of the clouds and get back to work; their children were told their destiny lay in the stars.
Anakin struggled mightily to please Obi-Wan, his father figure: He was supposed to be the Chosen One, singlehandedly bringing balance to the Force—but also selfless, humble, servile. He was supposed to maximize his incredible talent, but not actually use it because he hasn’t yet hit some ineffable target of maturity. He was never allowed to be a child, yet never allowed to be an adult.
When a new father figure, Palpatine, came along telling Anakin everything he wanted to hear (“You are already more powerful than Master Yoda,”) it’s no wonder Anakin listened.
At the time, the prequels were received poorly—not just because they weren’t well-executed, but because the Boomers and Gen-Xers paying to see the flicks struggled to identify with Anakin. Who was this whiny brat, getting Luke’s dream handed to him and yet turning away? Who was this creep whose idea of love was leering obsession? Who was this asshole who would kill hundreds, thousands, millions just because he didn’t get his way?
Watching Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith today, the plot resonates darkly with real life: Young men raised to believe they were entitled to everything they ever wanted—money, respect, sex—are now lashing out in anger, hate and even mass violence when they don’t get it fast enough.
Anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering: This is the lesson Yoda so desperately tries to impart on Luke. Yes, dark emotions flow easily into power. Yes, if you’re a smart white boy—the kind for whom Star Wars had always been made—the path between you and everything you want can be surprisingly short. Yes, greed and ambition work. But while that dark path can lead to material success—hi, Martin Shkreli—it inflicts suffering on many… and it doesn’t ease your own.
The light path is hard. Abandoning your anger, letting go of your ego and living for everyone and everything around you is not easy, and success comes slowly. But Yoda is never more resolute than when he tells Luke the dark side is no more powerful than the light side—and indeed the story of Anakin Skywalker ends with his redemption, turned back to the light by the hard-won triumph of his son.
Such is the power of the light side of the Force: It can even bring Daddy home.
These are the lessons many men learned in a fatherless vacuum, and we’re trying now to impart these values to our children.
“It’s all about generations,” Lucas told Entertainment Weekly about his vision for Episodes VII-IX. “Issues of fathers and sons and grandfathers. It’s a family soap opera.” But Lucas’ vision wouldn’t resonate with my generation, nor my childrens’, nor the generation in between who grew up during the prequels’ release. The world isn’t just about fathers and sons anymore, but mothers and daughters—and fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons, and people who don’t easily fit into the Hollywood concept of family.
I took my children to see The Force Awakens on opening night. When that magic yellow text appeared against a starfield, I was as excited as I’d ever been to see it. Looking at my children, though, and seeing them even more thrilled was a joy I can’t describe. Best of all, though, my children are getting to learn the lessons Star Wars taught our generation though an iteration far more relevant to theirs.
When not complaining about the whole reboot thing, many writers are bemoaning the fact that there is still evil in the galaxy. After overthrowing the Empire, Luke tried to re-start the Jedi Order, but failed. Han and Leia had a son who turned to the dark side, took up Vader’s mask and mantle. The First Order “rose from the ashes of the Empire,” the details of which are frustratingly sketchy—and before we even really know what the New Republic is, the First Order is wiping it out.
In terms of storytelling mechanics, those last two gripes have merit, but the battle between light and dark never ends. A new generation will always discover the power of the dark side. Humanity will never achieve a peace that won’t take massive collective effort to maintain.
Yes, The Force Awakens starts with a gifted orphan on a desert planet who guts out a meager existence with an affinity for technology and a talent for flying, as did A New Hope. Well, the same was true of The Phantom Menace. That the story is being re-told isn’t a failure, it’s what makes Star Wars Star Wars.
Rey is neither called to the stars, nor told her destiny is among the stars. Nobody cares about her, or even knows who she is. Her call is to belonging, to home, to a tribe she’s never seen but is sure must exist. This call is so strong she initially passes on a chance to help Han Solo fly the Millenium Falcon—even when it’s clear Han freaking Solo appearing out of nowhere and offering her a job on the Falcon means exactly the same thing to her as it does to us.
Finn has the opposite problem: He’s been hardwired into such a specific role in the grand machine of society, he has no identity at all—and all he wants is to get as far from it all as he can and find out who he is. Today’s kids may see themselves in either Rey or Finn, but likely see at least a little of themselves in both.
Kylo Ren, written and cast and acted and directed brilliantly, is the perfect villain for our time: Some young white men are chasing a Mad Men fantasy of how things used to be; Silicon Valley tech bros think aggregating all the world’s wealth for themselves will somehow solve all the world’s problems.
Ren’s almost literally wearing his grandfather’s suit, being evil as best he can figure out—because just taking everything you want seems a lot clearer and simpler than learning how to be a good person. But Ren’s evil is just a mask, covering his fear and insecurity. Ren blaming his honestly-probably-not-that-great-of-a father for all of his problems is a cop-out—and killing his father, he’ll find, doesn’t solve any of them. Success at the expense of others isn’t success at all.
The Force Awakens is a Star Wars for this next generation; for finding their own place in a world full of powers and myths they barely understand, for navigating a world where answers are never easy, and the motivations and machinations of powers that rule them are never clear. The Force Awakens teaches them to hope when there is no hope, trust when no one should be trusted, and walk the good path as best they can, even when they can’t see the end of it.
My children liked, even loved, the first two trilogies. But this movie is for them, and that’s how it should be.
I’m just glad I was there to see it with them.