Thanks to the Birth Movies Death community, I’ve been able to tease out some more of my complicated feelings about The Last Jedi. I’m reposting my posts because I want to preserve them beyond Disqus.
First, that the backbone of the Star Wars ‘Lore’ – which many film people seem desperate to ‘subvert’ – is World War 2, and in particular the Empire as Nazi Germany, the Death Star as a symbol of the Holocaust, and the Jedi as stand-ins for Judaism, and for that reason we should be very careful about trying to ‘artistically’ subvert these symbols without understanding their power.
It took a while for the deeper thematic layers to seep up from my subconscious into my front brain (because they are, actually, SUPER conflicted and confused. There are multiple contradictory themes, and I think that’s a problem, for a story).
On the whole, I didn’t like what he did with Luke *at all*, and it doesn’t improve on thinking about it. I think there were *elements* that *could* have worked – Luke taking Yoda’s ‘wars not make one great’ philosophy (which was already explored by him laying down the saber in ROTJ) and moving beyond the Jedi/Sith conflict to seeing a gentler, softer (more feminine, even!) approach to reconciling the galaxy. With Ben’s darkside fall as his trigger, not for a cowardly retreat, but to the source of the Jedi religion to try to gain new inspiration, new ways of bringing Ben back to the light.
THAT would have been consistent with Luke and a great sendoff for his character. It might even have been what Rian was reaching for! But sadly, he didn’t get there at all for me. Instead, what it read to me was ‘the Jedi are just bad’.
And I’m sorry, but the Sith are *Space Nazis* and that makes the Jedi…. well, basically Space Jews. And the original trilogy was Space WW2.
And so the deeper philosophical undertones of TLJ, when you start thinking about them, start feeling really icky and not cool. They almost verge on playing with a modern nihilism that’s very close to Holocaust denial. At least they do to me.
This sense that TLJ has morally lost its way, and is flirting with Nazism (I mean, the core of the story IS a literal flirtation of our heroine with a Space Nazi) I think is what’s bothering people who are bothered by it. And it’s been quite worrying this last month that people who point this out, have themselves been attacked as *being* Nazi supporters. No, it’s that we know our WW2 history, and we loved Star Wars because of the WW2 parallels – very real things that happened in our very real world, so the Death Star for instance isn’t just a space fantasy but has very dark and very real connotations * … but now…. things have become VERY morally murky in the series.
While Rey rejects Kylo (though there’s the sense that the relationship could continue, because it’s one of the strongest elements of the story), Luke says some very dark things about the Jedi, which if overlaid onto Judaism…. and combined with literal desecration and burning of a religious site…. well, you can see how it’s potentially problematic, right?
Moral murkiness isn’t always good, I think. Especially when you’re resonating with some of the darkest periods in 20th century history.
Would y’all be cool with a movie about, say, a punk rocker fighting against (and falling in love with) neo-Nazi skinheads, where as a side plot a drunken, defrocked Christian priest she goes to for guidance decides that all evil in the world has come from Jews and goes to burn a synagogue, and then a rabbi appears and encourages him and actually lights the fire himself?
That’s kind of the level of power of the archetypes being invoked in this movie. It’s not a thing one should do lightly in fiction without a VERY good and well-argued reason, and myself, I would tremble to go there.
Film school people – who, no offense, but it seems like the main thing they value is “novelty”? – seem to love to hate on “the Star Wars lore”, and delight in seeing it “subverted”.
But those of us who’ve always known that some very significant parts of the SW Lore ™ are based on *actual real world history* find it much harder to agree when symbols of this history are just casually ‘subverted’ in an era when it’s becoming newly relevant.
To those of us who grew up with a strong connection to the WW2 story, it’s like scribbling swastikas on military graves. Some things should not be done even if they’re ‘bold’ and ‘fresh’ and ‘novel’. There may have been a good reason why they haven’t been done before.
You want to make a revisionist WW2 story that honours the true events, and the intentions of those who fought, and what they were fighting about, and how those intentions became compromised? Sure. I’m all for that. WW2 cast a long shadow and it led to things like the Cold War and stuff we’re still dealing with.
But please treat it seriously, and treat symbolic depictions of it seriously as well. Don’t just toss it all up and go ‘well, actually, the Nazis and the Jews were two sides of a beautiful whole, darkness, light, it’s a circle. Also, a plague on both their houses, burn it all down. The next generation should go on unencumbered without any reverence for history. They already have what they need. Teachers can tell them nothing.’
No. This should not stand. Darkness is NOT light. They are NOT equivalent. They do NOT mix. There IS a difference. There is darkness that fell on the world in the 20th century which we should look at and tremble and whisper ‘Never again’ and mean it. And I’m not convinced that Rian Johnson or anyone else involved in greenlighting this script understood the historical events they were invoking here.
This is why I like Rogue One. It understands that *it’s a WW2 story*, and that it’s hanging in the shadow of the Holocaust. The themes, the characters, the plot events all reinforce this. Soldiers give their lives for victory.
Star Wars is a myth but WW2 was a real thing that happened, Nazism was a real thing that threatened the world and is rising again, it wasn’t just about jokes and goth teenage romances, and… I’m not sure the people trying to pass on our cultural myths to the new generation quite understand this?
* The Death Star kind of symbolises BOTH the Nazi death camps and Jewish Holocaust — I mean that’s kind of what Alderaan blowing up is about? Did you need the subtext made literal text to get that? — AND nuclear weapons. There’s two generations being conflated here; the WW2 Greatest Generation fighting against Nazism and the 1970s Baby Boomers fighting their parents, the people who won WW2 but built nuclear weapons and sent kids to die in Vietnam. So it’s complicated, but see it through the eyes of Lucas and his friends: They believe that by critiquing their parents they are honouring what their parents fought for in WW2. Otherwise Lucas wouldn’t have made The Dam Busters so central to the last act of his movie. So there is a clear through-line linking the two generations; imagine what would have happened if the Nazis had nuclear weapons? That’s the Death Star. That’s the Empire. That’s the Sith philosophy. You kinda can’t miss it. This is the key lens you need to keep in mind when you’re trying to ‘reinterpret’ or ‘update’ Star Wars for the 2010s. NAZIS ARE BAD. Jews are not Nazis. Kinda important not to accidentally make the theme of your movie that second one. But Disney did. Among other incredibly thoughtless things. Whoops.
Another point to reinforce the WW2 theme: a key influence on Star Wars is the comic strip Flash Gordon. The creator and first artist of Flash Gordon, Alex Raymond, took WW2 so seriously that not only did he bring Flash back to Earth in 1941 to fight against a Nazi-equivalent dictator, he himself enlisted in 1944. This is the generation who set the tone for Star Wars, and – in a series that features generations as one of its key themes – I think it’s important to honour their commitment to the real world they lived in.
It’s not cool to just throw away everything the generation who fought WW2 stood for. Don’t just toss your granddad’s D-Day Purple Heart off a cliff, and then scrawl a swastika on a synagogue and set fire to it and have some women and neo-Nazis pose in front and Youtube the whole thing to show your cool art friends how ‘edgy’ you are and say ‘it’s for feminism and world peace’ and hope you get lots of clicks. Don’t do that, hmm? It’s not cool. Disney kinda did that. And now some people, the ones who aren’t in the cool edgy art crowd… well they might have clicked your video, but now after thinking about it, they are a little annoyed.
To get a full readout on the public reaction to your video, maybe don’t just count the clicks. Maybe also ask what the older people, the ones who grew up attending that synagogue, are saying.
Second, in response to questions as to why some people strongly dislike the Canto Bight storyline:
As a sequence, I found it interesting (it was very good to get away from that very confined ‘bottle episode’ storyline).
But it felt like it came from a different draft of the movie, in a very different context. The connecting tissue between it and the ship-chase frame story just did not connect.
Our characters’ problem is they can’t hyperspace and they want to hyperspace. So to solve this problem, they…. hyperspace?
Their other problem is that they’re in a tight claustrophobic place with suspicion and potential traitors and a very clear ticking timer with hours left on the clock. To solve this problem, they go on a long rambling adventure very far away, in a wide open environment with no time limit, that feels like it unfolds over days, indulging their whims to explore irrelevant sidequests, and talk freely to very treacherous people. This would be a great adventure by itself, but none of this fits with the tight claustrophobic paranoid time-critical space that supposedly is motivating their actions.
Can you see why audiences felt taken out of the moment by both of these? That the writer just cheated, and that therefore all events flowing from that cheat were less than interesting because of the sense of even the rules that were just then established in that very scene, suddenly being thrown away? Modern Doctor Who does very similar things, with introducing rules just before they’re broken, and people complain similarly about that.
Finally, the characters are *punished* for going on this strange indulgent excursion (which felt tonally misplaced in the first place, as if it came from another story entirely, and that the audience wasn’t really on board for, having been cued psychologically for a ‘tight claustrophobic paranoia on a ticking clock’ story and then given this other one that felts irrelevant) — and all their achievements are thrown away. Worse, other characters are hurt.
The audience feels like *they* are being personally punished for something *the characters* did, and which they, the audience, were baffled by why it happened in the first place, because they didn’t want or expect the characters to do it.
“Wait, you threw us into this weird sideplot that we didn’t want and didn’t flow naturally from the setup of events… and now you’re saying it shouldn’t have happened? Well, WE were saying that all along but you weren’t listening!”
This sort of treatment breaks trust between the audience and the story-teller. They feel they’re just being dragged along for a ride that’s indulging the storyteller’s personal whims, and that those whims tend towards the pointlessly sadistic – forcing characters into weird situations that they would not naturally have chosen, and then once they’re there, hurting them for no good reason.
To tell a story, you need to set up a sense of flow, engagement and trust. You need the audience to feel like they are engaged with the protagonists, cheering them on, and that *the protagonists are making sensible choices that the audience would make in the same position*. Then, the results of the protagonists’ actions need to fit with what the audience expects to be a sensible result given the plan of action the characters have decided on, and which the audience is cheering for them to achieve. That result needn’t be outright victory, and it could introduce new complications, but it should be reasonably within the bounds of expectation given the genre and the style of the story.
When the characters do things jarringly at odds with what the audience finds sensible, it breaks the sense of flow, and the audience loses engagement with the characters. The audience begins to think of the characters as ‘dumb’ or ‘doing pointless things’, and the plot as ‘not making sense’. Further, if the results of those actions don’t fit with what’s previously been established as ‘how the universe works’, then the audience loses trust with the storyteller; they start to feel the storyteller is not being fair or reasonable, but is ‘just making stuff up’ or ‘out to score political points instead of telling a story’.
These are all how people who don’t enjoy Canto Bight describe their reactions to it. They’re also *my* reactions, so I know they’re real (for those people who have these reactions). I’ve just tried to describe *why* these are my reactions. The whole thing feels like a ‘breach of contract’ on the part of the storyteller; like he just gave up on telling the story he was beginning to tell (‘The Scary Ship Chase‘), told another one entirely (‘A Lazy Day At The Casino‘), and then got angry with the audience for listening to it and took his anger out on them by punishing viewpoint characters (‘You Bad Audience, Rebels Died Because You Abandoned The Scary Ship Chase To Spend A Lazy Day At The Casino!‘).
The experience is jarring. Frankly, it’s a bit like having a drunken abusive alcoholic dad who forces you to sit and listen to his long rambling stories in which characters from books you like get hurt.
You can smell the whiskey on his breath but he’s hugging you and your sister tight and you can’t get away. You just wish he’d stop telling this story, stop making you listen, and that you could get you and your sister away from this place and not ever have to smell his whiskey breath or listen to one of his drunken angry stories ever again.
And now you don’t want to reread those stories you once liked, because of what he made those characters do in his stories.
That’s how Canto Bight (and other parts of The Last Jedi) feels to me. It’s not a good feeling.
I know these are strong metaphors (drunken priest, burning synagogue, drunken father). And I know not everyone has this reaction. Perhaps only a minority of audiences. But they are honest and personal depictions of my deep emotional response to this movie, and I know I am not alone.
Update: A Rotten Tomatoes User Review from 1 Feb 2018 makes the following excellent point, which I hadn’t considered, but extends my WW2 critique:
By the way, when did burning ancient sacred books of the Jedi become something that Yoda would laugh about? In the Star Wars universe, they are priceless cultural and historical artifacts if nothing else. Did Yoda’s ghost join ISIS while we weren’t paying attention?
Yes. ISIS! I hadn’t even thought of ISIS, but yes! It’s not just echoes of Krystallnacht and book-burning which Disney have, unthinkingly, invoked (and note that the ‘Jedi and Sith are the same thing’ theme gets doubly problematic combined with the ‘global capitalists are secretly profiting off both sides of the war’ themes of Canto Bight – this is a Nazi belief which was strong in the 1930s, and was what fuelled Nazi anti-Semitism, and is also rising again today with neo-Nazi propaganda).
‘Accidentally’ promoting literal neo-Nazi talking points in a movie aimed at young people which is structured around the rise of neo-Nazism, and trying to make neo-Nazis look ‘interesting’, ‘attractive’ and ‘morally ambiguous’, while making a key symbolic anti-Nazi hero look degraded and horrible, would be bad enough. It’s plenty bad right there.
But destruction of sacred religious and historical relics is a much wider problem in the world today – the Taliban in Afghanistan, the chaos after the invasion of Iraq, and then ISIS in the last decade. It’s a tragedy. It’s not something you want to joke about and cheer for. But Disney just did.
Going back a little further, the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s-1970 destroyed a massive amount of cultural heritage, for much the same reason as Luke and Yoda and Kylo all do in this movie. This violation of history in an attempt to ‘wipe the slate clean’ has left a vast scar on China which has yet to be fully addressed, let alone heal. It will never in fact be completely healed.
And in 2017, a regime rose to power in America – a regime backed by literal neo-Nazis, it seems important to add – which is intent on doing similar things to American history and culture. The Trump administration has been slashing protections for national parks, destroying scientific data about climate change, and slashing healthcare, welfare, and the State Department.
And here Disney have released a blockbuster movie which directly advocates burning down temples and scripture. While American popular art critics, in direct contradiction of their audience (at least part of which is still smarter, more respectful, more filled with love and protectiveness toward their history), applaud these dark themes in service of a shoddy and derivative story as ‘bold’ and a ‘break with the past’.
Disney, don’t do this.
Don’t burn down the past. Don’t curse your parents. Don’t desecrate sacred spaces. Seriously, don’t do it. Don’t advocate for it. Don’t make it seem ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ in fiction and movies. Don’t.
You don’t know what powers you’re flirting with, what psychological energies are waiting their chance to manifest in this world. The world’s on a cliff edge. There is thunder sounding, lightning prickling all around. Hatred is rising, seeking its chance to break out into organised mass violence. The technologies to organise that violence are already here, already deployed. The desire to orchestrate that violence is also already here, backed by billions of dollars of private dark money.
Right wing activists are pushing conspiracy memes, watching for their chance. Left wing activists are pointing at religion as a scapegoat. Middle and working class anger is reaching boiling point. They’re searching for scapegoats and will take any that you point them towards. The potential for social breakdown is greater than it’s ever been since the dark days of nuclear brinkmanship in the 1980s.
Do NOT push a generation towards that cliff! Someone’s eventually going to take you literally!
Seriously, Disney, don’t! NOT COOL!
But they did it. And America’s professional memetic immune system, the critics, cheered them on.
This utter moral blindness and tone-deafness among the American critical elite – in the face of a domestic fascist uprising that is beginning to actually implement this ‘burn down the past’ attitude across America – is, frankly, both cowardly and terrifying.