The Last Jedi is a weird, bad movie that might kill an entire franchise and even seriously wound Disney at the height of its power, but weirder still is how the Internet discourse around it has been managed in the last month.
TLJ itself is weird enough that I’ve coined the word ‘flopbuster’ to describe its counter-intuitive, non-Newtonian, non-Euclidean properties. The weirdness around it is even more bizarre. To describe that, I’ve coined another neologism: ‘freeze war‘.
What’s a freeze war? It’s what you get when a sufficiently big Internet comment-section flame war hits a sufficiently widely deployed based of automated algorithmic online fire-suppression systems – and when multibillion-dollar megacorporations, and nation-state level political movements, also get involved on each side. Entire comment systems just get frozen. Comments deemed insufficiently ‘civil’ are just deleted. Like a flame war, this phenomenon feeds on itself and expands. But the war is fought in silence, by silence, as silence.
And the silence is deafening.
It’s eerie as heck and it’s maybe the future of the Internet and of Western culture itself.
The thing about a freeze war – or at least this freeze war – is, it’s not quite the same thing as centralised state or even commercial censorship. It’s a multifactor, multicausal, emergent ball of quiet chaos.
A quick history lesson: The ‘flame war’ emerged in the age of Usenet (1980s-1990s), as freewheeling unmoderated discussion groups – including TV and movie fandom, with Star Wars at the heart of it – and the anonymity of text chat began to generate angry, heated comments: ‘flames’. Flames begat flames, leading to ‘flame wars’. Mischief-loving bystanders, priding themselves on their coolness and lack of emotional involvement, soon learned to prod flame wars by posting bad-faith comments designed to spawn anger and burn down entire comment sections. These were the first real ‘trolls’. One ‘trolled’ (verb) a forum much as one would troll for deep-ocean fish with a driftnet, by posting a cleverly designed argument-starter and harvesting the rich bounty of delicious flame war that resulted.
As the Internet boomed, the word ‘troll’ soon began to be applied to any comment-group poster deemed ‘disruptive’ to that group, whether bad-faith or arguing for real. Simultaneously, the real trolls began to graduate to more hardcore pranks and then into politics. They moved from Usenet to Slashdot to 4chan to 8chan to Stormfront to the Trump administration. Their ironic use of Nazi symbolism to generate anger turned to actual neo-Nazism. They rebranded as the ‘Alt-Right’. By 2016, they had perfected organised online harassment – including the deadly form of harassment known as ‘swatting’, reporting fake hostage crises so as to trigger a lethal SWAT response – as a political tool and were beginning to be recognised as a real threat to life, liberty and happiness.
In response, and especially after the bitter and nasty online campaigns backing Trump in 2016, social progressives and lovers of civil discourse responded by deploying automated moderation and lockout tools. They’d been developed for a decade, but the Trump crisis brought these systems to their peak. By 2017, anything even appearing to originate from the Alt-Right began to be instantly, silently blocked on ‘nice’ forums. Good people cheered. Why were we tolerating actual Nazis, anyway?
It didn’t appear so, but this was a disaster in the making.
Into this rolled the new Disney Star Wars trilogy, the rights to the series purchased from George Lucas for $4 billion.
The success of 2015’s The Force Awakens – and then the death of Carrie Fisher in 2016 – revitalised the Star Wars brand just as social progressives suffered a major, generational and unexpected electoral defeat at the hands of Donald Trump and the Alt-Right. Princess Leia and the Resistance immediately became the symbol of anti-Trump political activists. Female-fronted media was the obvious attack line against Trump’s brand of repellent male chauvinism. A followup Star Wars movie, 2016’s Rogue One, worked the female-fronted angle to great effect. It didn’t hurt that it was a pretty good movie.
Disney’s neo-Star Wars had become the political figurehead of anti-Trump activism, something no right-thinking, left-leaning person could oppose.
Meanwhile, Disney had quietly been expanding its hold on the critics. As late as November 2017, it crossed swords with the Los Angeles Times, briefly banning that newspaper from advance screenings of its movies, over dislike about coverage of its business dealings.
The Last Jedi dropped in December 2017. Unusually for such an anticipated movie, its advance reviews were held behind an embargo, usually a sign of a controversial movie, one with bad press or one expected not to do well. The movie even opened in New Zealand before the press embargo lifted.
But Disney needn’t have worried. The unveiled critical acclaim was rapturous, near-religious in its adoration. Scores in the 90% range. This movie was everything. It was a bold new direction. It was mature. It cast Star Wars in an exciting new light.
Then the amateur fan reviews began to hit. They were the opposite. This movie was terrible. It destroyed all that was Star Wars. It was the end of the franchise.
The professional press began to report on the criticism. But a strange thing happened. Immediately, the press narrative shifted. This was not honest audience feedback, the stories ran (and they ran across multiple press outlets). Instead, it was just the Alt-Right, those Trump-supporting, women-hating, actual Nazi trolls. They were spamming the reviews with bots. They were ‘brigading’ (sending real people, but en mass) via forums on 4chan. Real people should love and embrace this movie. Even if you didn’t like it? Then you were just wrong. This movie was smarter than you were. You should see it twice, three times. You would learn to love it.
By January, even these stories began to stop. Instead, the press articles just reported daily Disney publicity pieces and ‘damage control’. Here’s the director speaking out against those overprivileged, angry fanboys! Here’s a famous film person lending support! Here’s a clip of one of the creatures or a concept art still! Anything to create a sense of positivity.
The movie just died in China. Fell off a cliff. Gone from theatres within a week.
On the actual forums, discussion began to reveal very mixed feelings toward the movie. But curiously, those posts began to dry up too. Moderation systems were activating, swooping in. Critical posters were blocked, flagged as trolls, ‘shadowbanned’ (a practice where a poster is banned but not reported that they’re banned; their posts simply are invisible to others).
Actual discussion of the movie continued, but only on mostly unregulated forums: Youtube, Rotten Tomatoes User Reviews, a small number of Reddit forums (NOT the official Star Wars one, where oddly only positive comments and corporate publicity could be found).
The Freeze War had begun. And the more comments were banned, the more anger began to move to the fringes of the Internet – the very places, haunted by the Alt-Right, that Disney and Democratic Party supporters would rather people avoided.
That at least is my impression as of the end of January, 2018. It’s very hard, still, to understand the scope of this war because, well, it’s conducted in silence, as silence, by silence. All dissension, in public, is being frozen. Professional critics and commenters, at least the ones who use text rather than audio/video, are staying well away. The last thing they want is to be called ‘Alt-Right’ and marked for freezing themselves. It could destroy their career.
But books will be written about this moment – if, in the future, publishing will still be allowed.
To be clear, I’m not claiming that the Last Jedi Freeze War was a planned event by either Disney or the Democratic Party. I don’t believe it was. I think it’s a combination of factors that has spiralled out of control:
1. Disney has a simple and clear financial desire to control the critical and social landscape during the release of a huge tentpole movie in a huge franchise. They want maximum return on their marketing and production cost; some part of their marketing, in 2018, MUST be invested in social forum management. Exactly what this entails, is probably commercial secret.
2. The critics… with their remarkably overoptimistic review scores for this movie… might just be fearful of Disney. They might just be flattering to it. They might be Star Wars fans themselves wishing and hoping this movie does well. All of the above might explain their initial overenthusiasm. It doesn’t quite explain their continued silence in the face of an unhappy audience though.
3. Democratic Party activists seized on this movie, long before launch, as their personal flagship, and so there’s a sense of embarrassment and sunk costs preventing them from criticising it. They don’t want to grant any ground to the Alt-Right. It’s promoting womens’ rights and diversity, so how can it be wrong? All the attackers must be Nazis.
4. The Alt-Right similarly seized on this movie as a symbol of everything they hate. As an unexpected gift, when it dropped, it turned out to actively embody all the Right’s very worst stereotypes of the Left. A hatred of religion. A hatred of parents. A hatred of men. Direct equation of good and evil. Disrespect for tradition and the past. Failure of logic. A story that falls apart into sheer nonsense at the slightest touch. ‘Relativistic morality’ and ‘postmodernism’ and ‘deconstruction’. Passive, cowering, yet powerful and arrogant women in authority who sneer and obstruct active, creative men with better ideas who are only trying to save them. A brutal Marxist desire to burn down all the systems of the world and leave nothing in their place. There was really no work left for Republicans to do to critique this movie, and by extension, Democrats: just quote it, unaltered. It would make the Alt-Right’s case for them. “Do you really believe THIS? This is your flag?”
5. The Alt-Right began to flood movie comment sections. In response, the humans running automated moderation/suppression systems, smarting from their failure to prevent the rise of Trump and his Russian bot army, fired the kill-switches. Silent war was declared. The freezing began.
6. Legitimate criticism of a terrible movie was suppressed in the freezing. The legitimate commenters, incensed, began to brigade Rotten Tomatoes with one-star reviews to try to drive the critic-inflated 5-star reviews into a more ‘reasonable’ range.
7. Rotten Tomatoes initially denied a bot attack, but froze the score at 49% anyway. It remains there to this day.
8. Angry progressives began to brigade back with 5-star reviews and cries of “It was perfect! Beautiful! Bold!”
9. Some critics – art school educated – maybe sincerely love this movie. They love it for deliberately being ‘different’ and burning all that came before. Maybe they love it for being an unusually strident (for America) attack on organised religion. It’s hard to imagine that these critics can love both Star Wars and a movie that hates it, but some of them surely must.
10. Other critics seem to have just frozen. They can’t say yes or no or they’ll be attacked from all sides. They’re just keeping their heads down, waiting for the public opinion to change so they can appear to lead again without having to take a risk.
That’s my assessment anyway. Will the automated freeze bans be lifted? Will comment sections thaw again? Will honest discussion of a divisive movie once more be tolerated on the Internet, or is this a permanent change, to there being a canon of Approved Politically Aligned Movies that are beyond criticism?
Right now, we can only wait and find out.
Update 31 Jan 2018: Wow, it seems like the freeze is finally lifting! While this article on Birth Movies Death isn’t yet challenging the critic consensus on TLJ, space *is* opening up in the comments for differing voices to appear. And some people are describing just what I suspected: a kind of self-censorship, trying not to get painted as ‘right-wing trolls’. Some people do love it; others have a similar reaction to mine; others in the middle. But the debate I expected a month ago is FINALLY starting to appear.