In 1977, George Lucas, his wife Marcia, and a few close friends made something extraordinary. For 40 years we’ve been unable to stop thinking about the strange little comic book movie that could, Star Wars.
In 1999, Lucas released a new film – The Phantom Menace – that failed as spectacularly as Star Wars had succeeded. It made Star Wars fans angry. But it didn’t stop us thinking about it. We were consumed with how to fix the Prequels. How the Original Trilogy was so good when the Prequels were so bad. What bizarre kabalistic art theories might be constructed in which the storytelling of the Prequels made any kind of sense?
But in 2017, finally, Rian Johnson has achieved the feat even Lucas couldn’t: He’s managed to make me – and many others – just plain not want any Star Wars anymore.
(There are spoilers and wrong opinions beyond the jump).
I saw The Last Jedi six weeks ago now. It’s taken me this long to process my feelings because… well… one, the movie itself is very strange. Complicated, conflicted, at war with itself, filled with flashes of genius and thudding blunders. And two, the public reaction to this movie has been equally weird. The critical review score is in the 90% range; showers of praise. The audience feeling is, well. Something different, but what? The Rotten Tomatoes score puts it at 49%, but nobody seems to know for sure if that’s real feeling or astroturfing from a small minority of women-hating Alt-Right Nazis, angry at its mocking depiction of Space Nazis.
As time passes, I’m coming to the sad conclusion that it’s not just haters. There’s something terribly wrong with this film. It’s a movie which has set out to unmake Star Wars itself, to erase all desire for more Star Wars from the most ardent fans – and has succeeded.
And perhaps that’s for the best. Perhaps – as the movie argues, passionately – Star Wars was a mistake and does need to die.
It’s making money. $1.26 billion at last count. Not nearly as much as its predecessor, The Force Awakens ($2 billion). But something curious is happening – at least if you go by the amateur reviews on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. People are seeing it en masse, but they’re not liking it. (China, though, isn’t even bothering to see it. They feel no cultural obligation and it simply doesn’t resonate for them.)
This is not quite like what happened with Batman v Superman ($0.875 billion)- where nowhere near as many people saw it as expected – but it should scare Disney, because I think something analogous is happening. A beloved hero (Superman; Luke Skywalker) is mercilessly deconstructed, remade as a toxic, angry bully, and fans just don’t understand why.
I don’t understand why. There’s a lot of things about this movie, or the cultural context that produced it and dozens of glowing reviews, that I don’t understand. And it feels like that should be important.
Let’s start with the politics. It’s sad that we have to, but this movie series is political. Star Wars had echoes of 1970s counterculture, if you read the Death Star as the US nuclear weapons complex and the Rebels as left-wing guerillas (though overlaid over a more traditional World War 2 story with the Empire as just plain Nazis, who everyone can agree to hate). The evacuation from Hoth had strong echoes of Mao’s Long March; the Vietnam parallels came into clear focus in Return of the Jedi. The films were in many ways about the Boomer generation’s anger with, and then partial reconciliation to, their parents, the ones who built the nuclear weapons state.
But it was my generation, GenX, who were struck by Star Wars as children, and we took it as a kind of personal sacred scripture. And there is something about those first two movies, at least, that really gets under your skin. A kind of once-in-a-generation cinematic alchemy. NASA imagery, microcomputers and personal robotics, the 1970s explorations into ESP, old reruns of Casablanca and World War II movies and Westerns, Buck Rogers comic books… all swirled into a kind of genius distillation of a moment in history that can’t really be repeated.
In the late 1980s and 1990s West End Games, LucasArts, and Timothy Zahn took Star Wars and built it into the Extended Universe of books and games, itself a strange new media experiment that somehow also succeeded in capturing lighting in a bottle for a second time.
Then came the Prequels; a disaster, but still another experiment, and one with a stronger political message, focusing rage on the US Republican Party of Newt Gingrich and George Bush. They were poorly constructed movies, but they did have a spine, and that spine was America’s slow post-Cold War fall into the Empire it had once pretended to fight. “This is how freedom dies, with thundrous applause”. That and George’s personal angst over his divorce from Marcia, playing out in the Anakin/Padme relationship.
The Force Awakens perhaps didn’t really set out to be political. But quite by accident, its First Order destroying the New Republic eerily predicted the rise of the Alt-Right and Trump. The post-Trump Democrats eagerly seized on TFA’s ‘The Resistance’, without irony, as their slogan. At the same time, a cartoon superhero franchise war was shaping up between Disney and Warner Brothers, with WB taking the Alt-Right angle (Batman, Macho Batman and Extra-Macho Batman) while Disney aimed for more liberal audiences. So The Last Jedi was always going to be walking into a political firestorm.
And it’s very easy to read TLJ as a liberal – but not TOO liberal, so Hillary Clinton but not Bernie Sanders – text. There’s what looks very much like left-feminist stunt casting of all the women in positions of authority, and all the men as villains or over-aggressive pilots who bring chaos through hubris. Asian (Vietnamese) faces are introduced for the first time. A slightly plump, by Hollywood standards, woman lectures a black man on how the economic system only brings profit to the rich. Yet even the left-liberal characters who push too hard against their centrist-liberal political betters are punished for disobeying the party line and bringing ruin to the Rebellion. A bit like, if you have a head full of 2016 US politics, Bernie Sanders supporters were (and still are) demonised harshly by Hillary Clinton supporters. Why couldn’t they just Trust That The Unlikeable But Powerful Woman Had A Plan and just obey? (Spoiler for 2016, if you didn’t catch up: they did obey, but her plan didn’t work).
But that’s just surface detail, really; the sort of boring, corporate focus grouped thing you might expect from a fairly middle-of-the-road, center-left-but-also-very-rich company like Disney trying to tick all the audience quadrant boxes in a spreadsheet.
A much deeper – and stranger – problem with the movie is that it appears to be deliberately trying to deconstruct, reverse, zero out every single theme of Star Wars itself. And that’s what makes not just the movie but the reaction to it so odd: because the critics, loudly, cheered this on. This deliberate act of literary vandalism tickled them where they itched.
And it was the left movie critics – the same ones who raged at Batman v Superman when it did exactly this – who cheered the loudest to see Luke Skywalker destroyed.
This could be a very bad mistake. There may be considerable political and social fallout from taking this stance.
Here’s some of the themes of The Last Jedi, as near as I can make them out.
Poe learns: that rebellion is bad and one should not trust one’s instincts. He starts as a super-fighter. He pushes too hard, sacrifices a bomber wing to take out a Dreadnaught. He instantly distrusts his superior, the cold and aloof Admiral Holdo (who we have never seen before and have no reason to trust either). He goes against her command and enlists Finn and Rose in a typical hairbrained Star Wars scheme. For this display of, well, rebellion. he’s punished; many rebels die because of him. But he’s also not really punished, instead he’s promoted.
Holdo learns: that telling your troops what you’re planning is maybe a good idea; that running away is better than fighting, but self-sacrifice as a last ditch attack is better.
Finn learns: that he is a coward (which he isn’t, or at least wasn’t in the first movie; he’s the bravest person in the cast, having defected from the First Order); that he needs to stop running (which he’s previously learned); then, that he should NOT sacrifice himself to save others, but should, somehow, try to save others without sacrifice (he’s never shown how, just told to do it).
Rose learns: that self-sacrifice in war is noble and honourable; that heroes are overrated (when she finds out Finn, a war hero, and who is also carrying A TRACKING DEVICE while they ARE BEING TRACKED but this connection never becomes important, wants to remove himself and the tracking device from the ship); that the Light is just as bad as the Dark; that small acts of randomly chaotic rebellion are better than big organised things that might conceivably fail; that giving people big dreams and then abandoning them is good (the slave boy – much like Anakin – who she inspires); that self-sacrifice in war is stupid and pointless.
Rose also lectures Finn (the literal Imperial slave soldier, kidnapped from his parents and whose friends have died in front of him in forced battle) on poverty and economics in Canto Bight as if he is a son of privilege who has never known poverty or pain. And Finn reacts as if suffering is a new idea to him too. But that’s just a sort of problematic side theme.
DJ, the dodgy code cracker, learns: that his personal philosophy of never getting involved because the Light Side is as bad as the Dark is correct and he gets rewarded for it.
Luke learns: that the Light Side is just as bad as the Dark; that the Jedi should go extinct; that heroes and the idea of heroism are a big elitist mistake; that teachers SHOULD NOT pass on their learning to pupils; that he should literally burn down the original Jedi Temple; then, later, that despite it going against everything he now disbelieves in, he should deliberately sacrifice himself to create a fake, larger-than-life myth, exactly the kind of thing he’s sworn never to become, to inspire others to go do random unguided heroism, somehow? But not to actually pass on real, honest teachings. Actual truth is bad; Fake Truth is good.
Leia learns: nothing, really. She just expresses pain and despair and briefly, happiness to see Luke-who’s-not-really-there.
Rey learns: that the Light Side is just as bad as the Dark; that she is already super good at everything; that she needs nobody and should learn nothing; that her parents were born losers but she’s a born winner and she’s better off without them; that she sort of likes Kylo but doesn’t quite agree with his methods
Kylo learns: that the Light Side is just as bad as the Dark, but that the Dark personally suits him better; that he doesn’t need any mentor figures, and that literally killing them is the best way to move forward; that he sort of likes Rey, but that she doesn’t quite agree with his methods
Snoke learns: that Kylo is really good at hiding his thoughts, and also at turning on a lightsaber.
It’s all very confused. IS the Light as bad as the Dark? Is it better to rebel, or obey? Is self-sacrifice good, or is it bad? Is it cowardly or smart to run? Is it honourable or stupid to fight? Do the young need teachers, or not? Should older and wiser figures try to teach the young, or are they better to abandon the world for fear of passing on their darkness? If they teach, should they teach distressing truth or inspiring lies? Since nothing is accomplished by anyone, is all action in fact pointless? The movie’s answer, at some point, is ‘yes’ to all of these. It wants to ask deep questions; it does not answer any. It wants to have no particular point of view but also not quite be totally nihilistic but also mock and unmake anyone who does hold to some idea of Truth.
The result, walking out of the theatre and trying to process what this movie has been saying, is a kind of deep mental fatigue. It seems to be saying… everything and nothing? But rather more ‘nothing’ than ‘everything’.
Emotionally, what I find I am left with – and the confusion from this movie has been so total it’s taken me six weeks just to work this out – is, for the very first time in my life, no interest whatsoever in watching a new Star Wars movie. I’m not hopeful. I’m not even angry. The emotion is just – gone. I’ve finally realised that a story that’s run for 40 years of my life is over, and that it won’t be continuing.
I won’t be watching Solo. I also, if I can help it, won’t be watching Episode IX. Episode VIII was so gruelling, so painful – to see Luke, the particular symbol of hope of my generation, reduced to such a state of cold rage and bitterness – that I have no wish to inflict that kind of pain on myself again. And there’s nobody left from the old films to pay homage to. Harrison Ford has left the studio. Mark Hamill has left the studio. Carrie Fisher has left our physical reality itself. Rey and Kylo, Finn and Poe and Rose are still empty ciphers. I have no ties to keep me interested in this franchise.
The Last Jedi is only the second in a trilogy but it carries a deep, sad, empty sense of finality. It sets out to copy The Empire Strikes Back almost beat for beat, but invert its thematic sense and meaning. The teacher has nothing to teach the student. Retreat is eternal and circular. Adventures are purposeless. Risks are dangerous. Sacrifice is stupid. Even the very idea of heroism is mocked and beaten, stamped on as a dangerous, hateful idea.
After this film, there is nothing left to want to save and nothing left to want to witness in the cinematic Star Wars universe. It will no doubt go on for many more films. But it will go on without a generation of fans – the ones who first made it famous.
We didn’t want to walk out at the intermission! We wanted to cheer as the 1970s cast bowed out and then cheer again as the new generation took the stage. We wanted to feel proud for them. But there’s very little now to cheer for.
I presume I’m not the only one who feels this. And reading the ‘underground’ audience reviews, I get a strong sense that I’m not alone. That many who have watched this movie have felt utterly revulsed by it.
But the big movie review sites, the professional reviewers, seem to have closed ranks in silence. They won’t allow themselves to say this movie is bad. And this includes voices I’ve trusted and turned to in recent years, like Film Crit Hulk and Birth Movies Death, the ones whose politics tilted left and I thought were a bastion of hope against Trump and the rising Alt-Right.
I find myself, instead, sympathising – partially – WITH the Alt-Right; the worst people on the Internet. Something I am really not comfortable with doing. I look at the gatekeepers of popular culture and think ‘wait, something very strange IS going on here. The hopeful ideals of a generation are being coldly dismantled and spat on, and nobody in media says a word. They cheer. Why? Are they afraid? Are they paid off? Is it just party politics? Or do these people really have an utterly alien aesthetics from mine? Why won’t some adult SAY SOMETHING? It’s just a bad movie, we get them all the time. So why not call it a bad movie? Why is it only the fans, talking quietly in the dark places of the Internet, who seem to be telling the truth about this?’
A pop culture mythology as large as Star Wars, you see, isn’t ‘just a movie’. It’s a story we’ve told ourselves to encode morality, ethics, honour. It’s a kind of religion. And if we’ve together, as a culture, have decided our mythology was wrong; well, that’s fine. I don’t like parts of Star Wars myself. I think it’s too ready to glorify war, too vague in its ideals. But… we’re just throwing it all out? We’re abandoning the idea of teaching, the idea of apprenticeship, the idea of heroic deeds, most of all, of hope? Is that really what we wanted? Did we actually choose this?
Or are others choosing this path for us? Why are we giving these culture-reviewers our trust? What weird ideas shape their instincts, if their sense of the good and beautiful has drifted so far afield from ‘the audience in the seat’? Do they really have our better interests at heart?
This sudden, bewildering sense of distrust in media gatekeepers, in the left-centrist ‘polite people’, is very frightening to me. I grew up on the center-right, tilted hard left when George Bush declared war on the world in September 2001. I’ve been deep in left-wing, anti-Trump politics for the last several years. And if this feeling (long familiar to the right) of being ‘silenced by the media’ can reach me…. well, this feels new and dangerous. We’ve seen what that distrust can breed. Reddit, 4chan, Stormfront.
But right now I find I’m being drawn TO Reddit and Youtube because that’s the only place a critical discussion about our shared cultural values seems to be allowed to happen. And I really don’t wanna be there.
If the ‘adults in the room’ in professional media for whatever reason have decided that in 2018 they can’t allow themselves even to call a bad film bad – and if that, then what other bad things that they’ve seen can’t they allow themselves to talk about? – then a generation who can feel the wrongness but can’t understand the silence may just have been shoved into the waiting arms of the First Order.
Seriously, did we really hate even the very idea of Luke Skywalker that much?
1. For a near real-time glimpse of the audience… feedback…, see Rotten Tomatoes’ User Reviews (sorted by date, so new ones come in the top). Are these all bots? Perhaps. But if so, they’re saying things that are very similar to how I feel. I’m a sample of one, but it *seems* that these might be somewhat legitimate. They are mostly not complaining about the existence of female characters; just that the movie isn’t very good and that the reviews are blatantly misrepresenting it. RT, however, has frozen its user review score at 49%. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/star_wars_the_last_jedi/reviews/?type=user
2. There’s one professionally published reviewer – just one – that I can find who is addressing the AT-AT in the room: that it’s the strange, inconsistent, and frankly politicised reaction of left-liberal movie critics to this movie that’s the interesting story. Luke Thompson, contributor to Forbes, 10 Dec 2017. “Cynical Hero Of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Isn’t New. The Critical Acclaim Is.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/lukethompson/2017/12/19/star-wars-the-last-jedis-cynical-franchise-hero-isnt-new-the-critical-acclaim-is/#8a0d807c8561
Thompson gives a very simple reason for why socially-liberal Birth Movies Death, who were scathing about Zack Snyder’s right-leaning Batman v Superman, is refusing to honestly address this issue: They are very good friends of Rian Johnson.
The more probable explanation for the different reactions is the perception of the directors involved. Zack Snyder is often derided as a racist, right-wing nutjob who loves Ayn Rand. Michael Bay, who generally refuses to speak about politics, is nonetheless perceived as right-wing, racist, sexist, and everything else. Rian Johnson, on the other hand, is fan-friendly, often appearing at Alamo Drafthouse events like Fantastic Fest and Butt-Numb-A-Thon, even recording the fans at last year’s event to put on The Last Jedi’s soundtrack; and his regular actor Noah Segan has written for Drafthouse’s overtly socially progressive movie site Birth Movies Death. Johnson doesn’t talk about his politics publicly (full disclosure: I went to USC with him and I don’t even know what they are) any more than Bay does, but they’re believed to be in the direction of inclusivity.
Ask yourself: if Michael Bay came out in support of Bernie Sanders, and Rian Johnson donated to Donald Trump, would that change audience perceptions of their movies? It probably and unfortunately would, even if their bodies of work remained exactly the same.
3. Another reviewer, buried in the noise, hits on the reason this movie is not sitting well with Generation X: Star Wars has been not just a mythology but a surrogate family for my generation. It was the first major blockbuster franchise to tell a generational, connected story in a single universe. Star Wars as a proxy for family means TLJ’s ruthless call to ‘kill the past’ is an alarm signal we can hear very loudly. http://www.zdnet.com/article/star-wars-is-dead-gen-xers-get-over-it/
4. A Medium post capturing some of the essence of the problem: TLJ is a deliberate rejection of a generation. https://medium.com/@ProofPozitivity/the-last-jedi-ever-7030647ecfc6
5. Birth Movies Death’s Batman v Superman coverage, relentlessly (and justifiably) negative:
with special focus on the social and political ‘damage done’ from violently deconstructing a revered fictional icon
6. BMD’s The Last Jedi coverage, equally relentlessly positive, particularly promoting its political angle:
with special focus on ‘damage control’: unhappy audiences are simply ‘watching the movie wrong’; they’re probably only pretending to dislike it; box office drops aren’t a problem
This is, sadly, a case study in how an entire media ecosystem loses public legitimacy.
I single out Birth Movies Death because it became a kind of spiritual home for me in the chaotic days after 2014, when ‘GamerGate’ broke on the Internet and revealed a strange new level of weaponised misogyny led by outright Nazis – a movement which metastasized into Trumpism in 2016. A large part of the GG recruitment myth (and a myth that still powers Trumpism today) was the idea that left-liberal media gatekeepers are untrustworthy, biased sources, and that the people need to route around them to find the real truth.
It pains me immensely to discover that at least part of that myth is actually true. And if we don’t acknowledge and fix it, that revelation is going to hurt socially progressive causes immensely.
7. To show that BMD is not an isolated case, here’s a snapshot of current articles in the professional pop-culture media:
Rian Johnson downplays the backlash
Avengers directors the Russo brothers are diplomatic in their statements of support film
The Guardian isn’t yet daring to talk about the backlash, it’s not newsworthy
WhatCulture is trying to talk people into seeing the movie a second time if they didn’t like it the first
SyFy is blaming all audience unhappiness on ‘the alt-right and nostalgic trolls’
Scott Mendelson at Forbes blames TLJ’s lowered box office on ‘the media narrative skewing negatively’ (despite the professional media being in full support mode)
Most of the articles appear to be fluff pieces driven by Disney advertising; the ones that aren’t are wagon-circling attacks on the audience. It’s not a bad or even ‘divisive’ or ‘controversial’ movie, the audience are just wrong.
All the real conversation, the exchange of true human feelings, is happening on Facebook or on websites you’d really rather your kids not visit.
It’s only a matter of time before Trump sees it and starts tweeting about it, and then….
Dear Left-Liberals: Ship. Get it in shape. Port. Head towards. Hatches. Batten them. Now.