Star Wars and the Pitfalls of Telling Adult Stories in a World Built for Children

For the last four decades Star Wars has been caught between the children who’ve loved it since its days as an unexpected sci-fi sensation and the adults into whom they’ve grown. From “the prequels suck because they’re for kids” to “George Lucas raped my childhood” there are entire legions of people furious and frustrated that they can’t relate as adults to the art that shaped their youth. Consequently, since the premiere of Revenge of the Sith in 2005 attempts have been made, both fan-led and official, to reject the childishness of Lucas’s films and usher in a darker, more adult kind of Star Wars storytelling.

Separating stories for adults from stories for children can be difficult, even contentious. Just look at any Twitter rant about the merits of learning conflict and relationship skills from Steven Universe as a thirty-year-old. In general, though, stories for children are meant to model behavior while stories for adults are meant to dissect and explain it. No hard and fast rule covers everything, but with time and thought it’s possible to understand that enjoying art as an adult and believing that art is made for you specifically are two very different things. Sesame Street winks at the parents, you know, but I doubt many would claim it’s a show for adults.

Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi — released in 2017 to a fan response ranging from frothing bigotry to rapturous acclaim — is the series proper’s first stab at a story informed by adult sensibilities. We get Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) dismissal of the Jedi religion as selfish and outmoded, stuttering slicer DJ’s (Benicio Del Toro) cynical assertion that the Resistance — which does business with arms dealers and other unsavory types — is just as bad as the First Order, a revelation that Luke briefly considered murdering his nephew Ben “Kylo Ren” Solo (Adam Driver), and a couple of suicide missions to let us know we’re in grownup territory.

Before Disney ever got its claws into the series, though, a game studio called Obsidian produced a buggy, deeply flawed sequel to 2003’s Knights of the Old Republic. The Sith Lords — which follows a nameless Jedi Exile severed from the Force on a journey to find the resurgent Sith — is a weird game. Maimed by its rushed production, anticlimactic and frustrating by design, it’s probably the most morally murky and uncomfortable story ever told in Lucas’s iconic setting. It dwells deeply on war crimes and post-traumatic stress, examines abusive relationships with compassion, and creates a Star Wars universe where the clear moral conflicts of the movies are both hopelessly sullied and made meaningful by moving, complex relationships. Where Johnson’s movie sneers at the things that make Star Wars iconic, The Sith Lords pulls them apart and finds meaning in the ways they fail and fall short.  

Calling the Past to Account

Both The Last Jedi and The Sith Lords work to complicate audiences’ understanding of the Star Wars universe and its most storied institutions, with the Jedi coming up for judgment in particular. In The Last Jedi, Luke broods alone and embittered at the site of the original Jedi temple, dwelling on his failure to save Kylo Ren from the Dark Side and the failures of the Order which trained both him and his infamous father Anakin Skywalker, later the Sith lord Darth Vader. When Rey (Daisy Ridley) arrives asking to be trained, he refuses her at first, claiming that it’s time for the Jedi to end. Even when he relents, he claims it’s only to dissuade her from following the Jedi path.

While Luke eventually realizes the error of his ways after a pep talk about the importance of failure by Yoda’s (Frank Oz) spirit, the movie fails to dig into the reasons a man who renounced violence by refusing to kill his actually monstrous father would consider murdering his own teenage nephew in cold blood. His disdain for the Jedi feels unwarranted when it was his own violent impulses which created the breach between himself and Ben. It’s here that Johnson’s film hits its first major stumbling block, losing its connection to Star Wars’ past by pulling Luke’s character arc into an unexplained 180. Making Luke a darker, more cynical character is well within the realm of possibility, but without any attempt to reckon with his life up to that point it comes off as unearned and crass.

The Sith Lords grapples with the moral and mythical landscape of Star Wars, and of the Jedi, in a much darker and more complicated context. It takes place in the aftermath of a massive war between Sith and Jedi, one which left both orders broken and scattered. The game’s plot revolves around a small circle of Jedi masters who have vanished into hiding. The masters are a varied group, ranging from the blunt and abrasive but good-hearted Vrook (Ed Asner) to the brittle and insecure Atris (Elizabeth Rider), and in their imperfections the game finds a sort of grown-up equivalent to the shortsightedness and confusion of the Jedi Order in Lucas’s prequel films.

The isolationism of the Jedi bears the brunt of the game’s scrutiny, from Atris cowering in her bunker to the Order’s failure to intervene in two deadly wars before the chaos and carnage had already run their course. The Sith Lords makes a case that in living apart from the galaxy’s millions of communities and passing moral judgment on those same communities, the Jedi only serve to act as an intrusive, disruptive police force with no real idea of what life is like for the citizens of the Republic. For decades the idea of the Jedi has thrilled kids in movie theaters and living rooms around the world; The Sith Lords is what happens when you pull that idea into the exhausting and complicated light of adulthood. It can’t survive the transition, but there’s wonder to be found in its disintegration.

I Just Can’t Relate

Long-form narrative art lives and dies by the strength of its characters and their relationships to one another. The Last Jedi locates its narrative hinge in the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren, a dynamic developed via psychic connection over the course of the film. This relationship functions mostly to create tension by suggesting that either character might reverse their morality to match the other’s, Kylo Ren tempted back to his family and the Light side of the Force by love or Rey swayed to the Dark side by her desire to find meaning in her life and by her feelings of betrayal at learning of Luke’s past wrongdoing. The elements of the story are adult — parental abandonment, murder, abuse — but the emotional and moral stakes are so simplistic that they undercut the complex issues the movie attempts to explore.

The characters in The Last Jedi are no flatter than those in the original trilogy, but their relationships are more nebulous, their emotional lives less complex. In Lucas’s movies the relationship between Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader (Jake Lloyd as a boy, Hayden Christensen as a young man, and James Earl Jones after his maiming) is clear and well-established. Palpatine takes the lost and fatherless Anakin under his wing and grooms him carefully, playing on his fears and trauma to lead him toward the Dark side.

In The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren agreed to follow Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkiss) for reasons never elaborated. They have no dynamic beyond one holding more power than the other. Ren’s and Rey’s relationship is more affecting, born out of mutual feelings of rejection and abandonment, but it can’t sustain the film’s weightier ideas. The characters’ moralities are too abstract, insufficiently grounded in connections with other people.

The Sith Lords’ drama revolves around the player-character Jedi Exile’s relationship with her calculating, morally slippery mentor, Kreia (Sara Kestelman). Kreia — who has lived as both a Jedi and a Sith — is a frustrating teacher, evading questions and nit-picking your decisions while conspiring against you with both your allies and your enemies. Her heel turn late in the game isn’t much of a surprise, but nor is it meant to be. The real weight of Kreia’s relationship to the Exile is that this testing, this treason, is the only way she knows how to show love. In fact, their final confrontation contains something none of the movies ever managed: two women explicitly professing love for one another. This is another foundational element of adult storytelling, the idea that emotions are fundamentally inseparable, that love and hate can coexist, become conflated, and run together in a hundred other ways.

Kreia’s schemes cause widespread suffering, but her goal isn’t galactic domination, or revenge, or even triumph of any kind, really. What she wants is to destroy the Force, to poison it by introducing the Exile’s traumatically-induced Force wound into its makeup. There’s no cynicism on the game’s part, though, as to the wonder of the Force and the enchanting quality of the Star Wars universe. Instead, Kreia’s motive is a belief that the Force arrests the development of those who use it, leaving them reliant on mystical shortcuts and unable to truly exist in the world around them. It’s a poignant metaphor for the lives of people unable to move past the art they loved as children. The magic of Star Wars is real, but it’s too simple, too elemental, to contain an adult’s hurts and fears and hopes.

Let the Past Die

The suicide bombing run at the beginning of The Last Jedi in which an over-eager Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) gets dozens of pilots killed bringing down a massive First Order dreadnought is a hard thing to square with either the series’ preceding films or the rest of the movie it opens. It’s a good action scene, tense and novel, affecting even, but the movie doesn’t know what to do once it’s over. It has no ability to dwell on the tragedy it’s introduced, to rise to the level of seriousness a subject like suicide requires. It makes the movie’s ensuing hijinks feel ghastly and inappropriate. It’s emblematic of The Last Jedi’s difficulty squaring the circle of its all-ages tone and the cynical jabs it takes at Lucas’s vision of a galaxy far, far away.

When DJ equates the Republic’s purchase of starfighters to the First Order’s, it’s played like a real “gotcha” moment, and in a film with the clout and willingness to grapple with the idea of the military industrial complex it might well have been, but The Last Jedi is a kid wearing its father’s boots. Sneering at art you love while clinging to it with both hands just pulls us deeper into the distorted, entitled fan culture we have today. What The Sith Lords gets and executes that The Last Jedi doesn’t is that once you start down the path of pulling something apart, you have to finish if you want it to mean anything. You’ve got to be willing to admit that you’ve outgrown Star Wars, willing to allow the kid inside you who fell in love with the thrum of lightsabers and the shimmering heat of Tatooine’s twin suns to let go of that dream. You’ve got to face, head-on, the loss and confusion of growing up.

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2 Comments

  1. I liked TFA well enough, thought it was an ok start to a larger narrative. I went into TLJ completely blind, and walked out hating the film. There plot holes and character inconsistencies took me out if the film. Also, it is possible to tell an adult story in a childrens film or series, Kamen Rider Kuuga is a great example of telling a mature story in a childrens show, while still making it compelling enough for the adults, and simple enough that it doesnt go too far over the childrens head.

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