Star Wars – media for a new generation?

(Spoilers for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi)

You may have heard that Star Wars: The Last Jedi was released last month. The film has been divisive with critics generally praising the new instalment, whilst diehard fans are having “funerals for their childhood” and even starting a petition to have the story removed from canon. I went to see the film on its opening weekend and it exceeded my expectations.

Watching the film, I was surprised by how many strong women I saw on screen. General Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo are both examples of successful leaders. They are pragmatic and calm under pressure, wanting to protect the Resistance rather than going after the big wins. In contrast, the hot-headed pilot Poe Dameron pushes for dramatic victories with little thought of the consequences. When Holdo gives her own life to ram the Raddus through Snoke’s flagship Supremacy, Leia tells Poe that she was “more interested in protecting the light than seeming like a hero”. This suggests that leaders who choose to make difficult choices to benefit the greater cause do not always appear heroic. Previously, the plot of Star Wars has been largely driven by the power and ambitions of male characters and so it was refreshing to see such strong women calling the shots.

For a mainstream franchise, the cast is fairly diverse. Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), an Asian-American actor and Finn (John Boyega), who is British-Nigerian, are given their own story arc. The focus on non-white characters could go further, but it’s a promising start for such a major series. Director Rian Johnson has called for more diversity within the saga and also appears to have included more overt messages in The Last Jedi. For example, the casino planet Canto Bight (in which Rose and Finn land) is the first time we see what appears to be a high class in the new trilogy. The rich on Canto Bight have created a haven away from the galactic conflict and this class divide is a new theme for Star Wars. Finn, initially in awe of the planets glamour, is told by Rose to “look closer” to reveal the ugly truth – the casino is built on arms dealing and slave labour. Although it could be argued that this scene wasn’t a necessary addition to the film, it helps to expose younger viewers to the importance of ethical questioning, a very undervalued skill in today’s world of commercialisation and fake news. Regardless of the scenes potential messages, having two non-white characters in their own adventure is representation and representation really matters.

The film makes a bold move away from the Skywalkers and the Good v. Bad trope, allowing space to comment on what it means to be a hero. The heroes of the original trilogy are no longer young and invincible, as we see Han Solo (in The Force Awakens) murdered and Luke reduced to sulking away on Ahch-To. The surprisingly early end for the mysterious Snoke further symbolises the saying goodbye to old archetypes to make way for new faces and a new approach. In The Last Jedi, we are also told that Rey is a “nobody” and I hope this remains true for Episode IX as it would prove that, despite not being a Skywalker or a Kenobi, she is still able to become a badass force user. Other characters could be described as “nobodies”, such as Rose (maintenance worker) or Finn (deserted Stormtrooper), yet they play a key role in the events of the film. This device sends the message to younger audiences that heroes are not untouchable or without flaws and you do not have to be “special” to make a change. I am also eager to see where they take the Rey and Kylo Ren connection, as it could go further in creating complex characters who cannot be so easily split into Good v. Bad. This will help create realistic stories which reflect the light and dark in all of us.

I can understand why some fans are upset, The Last Jedi is not like the other Star Wars films they love. Yet this is what makes it so great. I can’t help but feel giddy knowing that children will watch a film with characters that look like themselves, or their family members, or friends. They will watch a film that goes beyond the original story of a white male protagonist to ask important questions about what makes a leader and a hero. A mainstream franchise moving towards inclusiveness and including themes relevant for today, hopefully, signals the development of media for a new generation. If this is the future then (in the words of Kylo Ren) it’s time to let the past die and make way for a modern chapter to the Star Wars story.

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