Let the Past Die: Generational Conflict in Rian Johnson Films

It seems now more than ever we find ourselves in heated arguments that tend to divide people by age. The older generations are ‘from a different time that don’t understand’ whilst the youth are ‘millennial snowflakes’. Meal times with families often devolve into heated debates between children and parents involving politics, race and sexuality. Filmmakers have depicted generational conflict for decades but there is one current filmmaker who, even in their biggest blockbusters, has explored this theme in interesting ways. In his recent features, Rian Johnson has weaved generational conflict into stories that feel universal and current; be it in a futuristic Kansas or a galaxy far far away.

A man sits in a restaurant opposite his older self, from the film Looper.
image courtesy of TriStar Pictures

Johnson’s time-bending first foray into the science-fiction genre, Looper (2012), finds Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an assassin who kills targets sent from the future, confronting a threat close to home: himself. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time and is forced to, literally, face himself, leading to the film’s best scene where the two Joe’s come face to face at the diner. The conversation they have resemblesa stereotypical argument between a child and their parent: Young Joe is stubborn, rebellious and fights for free will whilst Old Joe uses his age to come across as wise but can’t help to be angered by Young Joe’s self-absorbing attitude. Even within the same person there is a conflict because of their age and experience. Johnson uses the generational difference here as an intricate analysis of one’s self: how we grow and change in a way that our younger selves wouldn’t understand but also how we don’t change. Young Joe is a selfish and rebellious man, highlighted in his scene with mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) where Joe insists he will move to France even when a man from the future advises him to move to China. Old Joe can be argued to be just as self-absorbing as he refuses to change the course of history for his own gain. Yes, it comes at the cost of the life of his wife and child but the future Old Joe wants would lead to the death and destruction of many. What starts out as a generational conflict within one’s self however soon becomes bigger than anyone imagined all thanks to one character: Cid (Pierce Gagnon).

Cid is the centre of everyone’s character arc: mother Sara (Emily Blunt) wants to redeem herself from abandoning Cid when he was younger by being there to look after him, Old Joe is on the hunt to find and kill him so he can prevent Cid from becoming the Rainmaker, Young Joe changes to protect Cid and forge a new future for everyone. The generational conflict between both Joes moves away from themselves and onto an even younger generation. If Cid becomes the Rainmaker that Old Joe sees in the future then Joe’s family will die, amongst many others. Old Joe is so hellbent on preventing this future from happening that he is willing to eliminate any other children who may possibly be the Rainmaker. Young Joe at first only wants to protect Cid so he can kill Old Joe but soon warms to Cid and sees the possibility of a new future: a future where Cid uses his telekinesis powers for good. Young Joe and Sara have made decisions that will haunt them for the rest of their lives but they can slightly redeem themselves by instilling a new hopeful future free of mistakes onto Cid. Young Joe sees opportunity and hope through Cid. Old Joe only sees death and misery. In the end Young Joe kills himself, and in effect Old Joe, which prevents the chain of events that would lead to the Rainmaker becoming a reality.

In Looper, Johnson cleverly uses the same character to display common conflicts between different age groups that ultimately show that we eventually become the person who we think is wrong or out of touch. Unless we change, that is. Young Joe’s character arc suggests that we have time to change, or at the very least time to recognise our faults and place the lessons learnt into a new generation. 

A humanoid alien grabbing the face of a young woman, from the film Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
image courtesy of Disney

With his 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) there’s a vast universe and a huge roster of characters to play with, meaning there are multiple conflicts on display that Johnson can explore. In a similar structure to Looper, The Last Jedi explores the relationship between apprentice and master before moving onto a much bigger issue. Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks out Luke (Mark Hamill) to get him back into action and give hope to the Resistance but he refuses the call to adventure. Luke is pessimistic about the whole Jedi order but of course we see why. Past generations of the Jedi Order have failed because of their hubris which lead to the creation of some of the most powerful Sith Lords in the galaxy. We find out that even Luke has become a part of this loop; failing a young Ben Solo (Adam Driver) that sealed his fate in becoming Kylo Ren. It isn’t hard to see why Luke despises the Jedi with generation upon generation failing the current crop of Jedi Knights in training. Rey can only see the good amongst everything and so we get a conflict between a youthful optimist and an elderly pessimist. Kylo Ren on the other hand is the one who keeps failing his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Snoke still thinks of Kylo as a child who hasn’t yet grown up into the powerful Sith Lord he is destined to become; failing his tasks and becoming caught in the middle of the light and dark side of the force. Kylo is fuelled by rage with his overbearing master constantly undermining him, which leads to the film’s biggest character moment. 

Kylo hasn’t just been failed by Luke; we discover that Snoke manipulated Kylo in order to get Rey and wipe out the Resistance. It is here that Kylo takes matters into his own hands and murders his master. Having been let down by older generations from both the light and dark side, Kylo decides to start a new order and “…let old things die”. The generations before Kylo are at fault and need to die out to make way for a new start, a better generation living in the galaxy. Of course Rey disagrees and still finds hope,even within people that have made past mistakes. The conflict lies between Kylo and Rey and how to proceed forward with the weight of previous failures. Kill the past and start anew or see the light side and instil hope in a new generation? 

With some wise words from Yoda (Frank Oz), Luke learns that “The greatest teacher, failure is” and returns one last time to face down the First Order and give the galaxy hope. The key message that Johnson wants us to take away with Luke’s journey however is that “we are what they grow beyond”. Luke failed Ben and if he stayed in hiding on Ahch-To, Luke would simply be the man who helped create a dark lord and wallowed in his failure. Not a hopeful message at all. Instead Luke helps the Resistance escape Crait and confronts Kylo; becoming a beacon of hope across the galaxy where new generations can look up and be just like Luke. This passing between generations is seen through the young boy on Canto Bight; looking up to the stars filled with hope and the courage of a Jedi.

Johnson has a talent for creating incredible final shots that perfectly encapsulates the message and theme of the film. With Looper we have Cid tucked into bed, safe and alive to lead a good life. With The Last Jedi we have ‘Broom Boy’ filled with hope the galaxy desperately needed. Both films end with the positive viewpoint that the younger generations can rise above our past mistakes and spread hope and goodness into the world. The conflict between generations is needed for both to learn and grow. Johnson has an optimism about future generations, an optimism we desperately need in our world. We have failed in the past, sure, but there is always the opportunity to redeem ourselves and, better yet, place the lessons learnt into the future.