Retrospective | How ‘The Last Jedi’ Became a Battleground In Our Culture War
Last year, I watched all 33-and-counting Godzilla feature films ahead of the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This year, I’ve undertaken a programming schedule that is much more manageable in scope, but even closer to my heart. This is The Road to ‘Rise of Skywalker’ Rewatch!
Strap yourselves in, this one’s gonna be a doozy.
By the time of The Last Jedi’s release in December 2017, I was accustomed to the new reality of a crushing, unending news cycle which had transformed daily life into the sweeps week from hell. At some point, my iPhone’s News app had begun interrupting my day, multiple times a day, with headlines that were like little cortisol hits designed to drive engagement with their publishers’ content through prurience, irritation, and fear. And I was unwilling to turn the notifications off, because it seemed (and continues to seem) irrationally important that I pay attention every time a new garbage fire ignites somewhere on our melting planet.
I know I’m far from alone in indulging this addiction. For millions of people, every revolution of the Earth is another opportunity to immerse oneself fully in a flattened data stream in which all news, from celebrity gossip to constitutional crises, is presented as a single overlapping cacophony of competing information and opinion that our brains were never evolved to properly handle.
In this setting, it’s vital that we find bastions of psychological refuge. Palliative shelter. Simple joys that can remind us to occasionally live life for ourselves, rather than in a constant state of low-level anxiety about forces too big for any of us to solve alone. Over the last few years, one such happy place for me has been the second Renaissance of Star Wars and the opportunity to engage in exercises, like this essay series, which it has presented.
When The Force Awakens debuted in 2015, the idea of resurgent fascism successfully lashing out at a pillar of ineffectual, polite democracy and catching the state off guard had seemed a whole lot more hypothetical. But by late 2017, a bunch of manicured, petulant young jackboots working themselves up into a red-faced lather about reclaiming their fathers’ lost cause had J.J. Abrams’ reboot appearing strangely prescient.
Meanwhile, I had been excited for Episode VIII ever since Lucasfilm announced that Rian Johnson would be helming it. In contrast to J.J. Abrams’ glossy, easy-going populist sensibility, Johnson was hardcore, deep-cut film nerd through-and-through. His first movie, Brick (2005), was a neo-noir set in a version of contemporary suburbia in which every high schooler talks like they’re a character in a Dashiell Hammett novel. His biggest project prior to landing the Star Wars gig was Looper (2012), a time-travel actioner in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears facial prosthetics to play a young Bruce Willis tasked with killing his future self.
What I’m saying is that Rian Johnson is every bit the geeky, unpredictable eccentric that George Lucas is. His movies are off-kilter and mischievous. This makes him perfectly suited to a trilogy’s middle picture, which is a chance to explore character flaws and to twist the proverbial knife in ways a first film is too busy setting up plot points to manage. Besides, Disney and Lucasfilm seemed to had gotten the message that many fans had felt The Force Awakens played it too safe. Virtually every behind-the-scenes reel and interview pushed the angle that this time, fans and audiences would be surprised by the choices the story would take.
My optimism was only buoyed when early word of mouth and the first reviews started trickling in, with the consensus seeming to be that it was a surprising, thoughtful examination of themes that ran throughout the series, and which happened to be gorgeous, to boot.
My girlfriend and I left for the theater on opening Thursday night to meet up with a group of fan friends who’ve made an event out of seeing new Star Wars together since the prequels. Arriving at the theater, I took note of the makeshift red carpet experience that management had set up out front. Someone had contributed a life-size, remote-controlled R2-D2 that was beeping and interacting with the crowd. A little girl dressed as Rey was marvelling at Artoo. Her parents snapped a photo.
It struck me that she’ll have that photo years from now, just as I have a videotaped news segment somewhere of myself and my dad at the 1997 Los Angeles Special Edition premiere of A New Hope. This was what the experience of Star Wars could be about — those memories, me with my friends here at the theater, part of a community in kindred spirit.
At showtime, the lights dimmed, the Lucasfilm logo came up and a hush settled over the crowd. It’s a ritual— the collective silence during the epigraph “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….” unites the audience’s attention, and delivers a sensory palette cleanser before John Williams’ initial orchestral blast.
For the next two and a half hours, I was swept up in an encyclopedic assessment of the sights, sounds, and thematic motifs of Star Wars. Things that had felt for years like loose threads dangling in this shaggy-dog saga were sutured together, just as others were yanked apart with diabolical glee.
I loved it.
Thirty-five years after Luke suggested in Return of the Jedi that Leia would, in time, learn to use the Force — and in a final send-off to the recently deceased Carrie Fisher — the princess-general at last tapped into her latent powers onscreen.
Yoda’s final, touching lesson for the aged Luke encapsulated what these movies are all about.
The opulence of Canto Bight laid bare the connections between wealthy industry and decades of galactic conflict, lending this movie some of Star Wars’ most pointed commentary.
The throne room sequence wisely discarded of dead-weight villain Snoke, and gave us one of the most visually arresting sequences in the franchise.
The “Holdo Maneuver” sent a wave of audible gasps through the house.
Luke found a way to win the day without betraying the pacifist ideals he had embraced by the end of Return of the Jedi.
Every few minutes provided another potent image or line that I knew would go down as a memorable part of the cinematic Star Wars canon in my book.
I’ve said before that Star Wars is at its best when it’s weird, and boy howdy, was there weirdness aplenty to be had.
I was relieved to see a Disney-era Star Wars movie stay so true to Lucas’ sensibilities, while pairing them with a more consistent execution of craft than his own installments had managed to deliver.
Unlike The Force Awakens, which had been so preoccupied with trying to be Star Wars that it had forgotten to bring its own unique genre influences to the table, this movie bore the clear mark of its auteur’s own inspirations. The meticulous composition and exaggerated kinetic motion of classic 1980s and ’90s anime made their presence felt throughout The Last Jedi, a natural extension of the visual palette of Star Wars’ homages. Now here was a movie that was moving Star Wars forward the right way, I thought.
Like some kind of space opera Vertigo, it took a familiar genre setup and then eschewed slick narrative economy for an unusual, unpredictable structure (four acts, in this case), happy to throw a wrench in how these kinds of movies are supposed to work. But for all its film-school high-mindedness, it didn’t forget the need, at its heart, for core emotional accessibility. This was still a fairy tale.
In short, it exceeded nearly every one my expectations, bundling up the totality of Star Wars’ themes and tones across forty years into one climactic statement which also swept the chessboard clean for something new. (Whether Episode IX follows through on that promise to break the cycle and re-imagine the future remains to be seen — though I have my doubts. The Rise of Skywalker certainly looks to be more of a greatest-hits curtain call reprise than any kind of conceptual successor to this movie. Whatever; I’ll always have TLJ’s mic drop.)
The following day, I was still replaying the movie’s best moments in my mind. But online, something was souring. Plenty of my fellow Criterion-collecting, Dissolve expat peers seemed to agree that they’d just watched the best Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, yet across social media, a maelstrom of nerd fury was only beginning to ignite.
The complaints were numerous — that this movie ruined Luke Skywalker, turning him from hero to depressive zero; that its script was an example of leftist, feminist propaganda; that the Canto Bight sequence served no purpose; that Admiral Holdo’s hyperspace kamikaze broke the logic of the rest of Star Wars; that Leia’s flight through the vacuum of space looked silly; that dispensing of Snoke left a giant plot-hole and wrecked the delicate narrative arc of a trilogy. The list of grievances was long. Very, very long, and very loud.
Had we even watched the same movie?
Now, before I go any further, let me make clear that I’m not accusing everyone with a different opinion about The Last Jedi of being an antifeminist Nazi. And yes, it’s a natural tendency to get defensive about something you love. But whether someone likes this movie, or any Star Wars movie, is truly beside the point for me. It made a billion dollars and certainly doesn’t need me sticking up for it.
The issue, however, is that the loudest voices within this crusade had in common socially-regressive axes to grind, and they seemed to show up in every thread across the internet to disrupt the conversation and pick a fight. This went on not for days, not for weeks. It has now gone on for years. And it was personal: with social media making it easier than ever to send hate mail, they hurled insults at Rian Johnson, Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, and Daisy Ridley. Like Ridley, freshman cast member Kelly Marie Tran was chased off social media by the angry mob. Esquire neatly summarized the Year of Star Wars Fandom Hell in a piece penned in time for the one-year anniversary of The Last Jedi’s release, when the maelstrom showed few signs of cooling.
This fight was only nominally about Star Wars, up until the point where it ceased to be about Star Wars. Inevitably, the veil would drop and the underlying grievance would make itself known. The discourse around Star Wars had, at some point between 2015 and 2017, become totally enmeshed within the highly polarized battle that we used to call the “culture wars.” Ten years earlier, the so-called culture wars were mostly dredged up by stories about inadequately religious greetings on coffee cups, or whenever television acknowledged the existence of gay people. But eventually the term “culture wars” seemed to fall out of common usage, because imperceptibly, everything became a part of the culture war: that was now just popular culture, which itself had become a theater of unending ideological warfare.
A few months after The Last Jedi’s release, vitriol seemed only to be ratcheting up, as part of a broader conversation over the representation of women and minorities in genre fare, which itself was just a part of a larger fight over what American culture is, and who it is for.
And that fight was like a fever that had spread throughout the body politic, all but impossible to avoid. The summer after the movie’s release, an old friend I hadn’t seen in years visited me at my home. We were both film students, having met as studio interns during our college years. We’d worked on shoots together and swapped screenplays for story notes. I had always respected his judgement and taste; he was no anonymous internet troll. We went out for dinner, and the conversation turned to The Last Jedi. He had so much disdain for the movie that he said it had turned him off to the whole franchise. I was surprised, but wanted to hear his take — if anyone could stake a reasonable case for why it was no good, I figured it would be him. To my disappointment, it didn’t take long for him to issue his distaste for the outsized role of Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo. He parroted the line that Disney was trying to push a feminist agenda with many of the movie’s moments. I pushed back, and I’ll admit, I got pretty snippy.
I was a little embarrassed for letting myself get so worked up about one dumb fantasy movie, a thing that’s arguably supposed to be an escapist retreat from the fraught world we live in. But then again, I knew damn well enough that this argument wasn’t really about the movie with the space birds in it.
I still think a lot about that interaction. I’ve never seen any actively misogynistic behavior from him. But every one of us has fundamental, latent assumptions about the world which in turn form our own blind spots. We all have more growing to do.
In retrospect, we’d been talking across one another, engaging in a dialogue using the same words but with those words meaning something different to each of us. I wondered, had I just become too wrapped up in the semiotics of The Discourse?
Was I the one guilty of dragging Twitter garbage fire baggage into the real world, or was I just standing up for what I saw as the basic fairness needed for a democratic society to function healthily?
The fallout of all this made me want to step away from fandom, from the internet, and frankly, from Star Wars — for a little while, at least. I needed to reset. How had it all turned so ugly so fast?
This is why we can’t have nice things
Of course, in truth, nothing had soured overnight. The Last Jedi was a proxy war in a larger cultural conflict across the Anglosphere. The same dynamics that were at work here were present in the ascension of a sexual predator to the highest office in the land. They were present in the horror stories coming out of #MeToo. By 2017, it was as if the nation had turned over a stone and discovered a hive of bugs underneath, scurrying back into the shadows.
In retrospect, the online pop culture/popular arts space was one of the earliest arenas for the modern culture war. It finally reached its current tenor with the “Gamergate” controversy, a harassment campaign in the middle of the decade levied against women in the video game industry. Deadspin’s Emma Carmichael wrote an article in October 2014 presciently titled, “The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It’s Gamergate”:
What we have in Gamergate is a glimpse of how these skirmishes will unfold in the future — all the rhetorical weaponry and siegecraft of an internet comment section brought to bear on our culture, not just at the fringes but at the center. What we’re seeing now is a rehearsal, where the mechanisms of a toxic and inhumane politics are being tested and improved. Tomorrow’s Lee Atwater will work through sock puppets on IRC. Tomorrow’s Sister Souljah will get shouted down with rape threats. Tomorrow’s Tipper Gore will make an inexplicably popular YouTube video. Tomorrow’s Willie Horton ad will be an image macro, tomorrow’s Borking a doxing, tomorrow’s Moral Majority a loose coalition of DoSers and robo-petitioners and scat-GIF trolls — all of them working feverishly in service of the old idea that nothing should ever really change.
Gamergate soon spawned Comicsgate, which applied the same tactics of targeted intimidation to the comics publishing space. Both movements were magnets for regressive activism, providing a pipeline for reactionaries wielding social media like a cudgel and generating new audiences and sales for aggrieved fringe artists and commentators.
Two years earlier, The Force Awakens had garnered a preview of coming attractions, with complaints of Rey’s character being a “Mary Sue,” a fandom term whose original meaning had become corrupted to denote any female character with a degree of competency deemed implausible. The complaint was popularized by Hollywood enfant terrible Max Landis on Twitter. (Landis would later be accused of emotional and sexual abuse by eight women.)
By late 2016, the world had become fast acquainted with the Extremely Online fanboy, an archetypical node in a hive-mind of scum and villainy which stretched from the darkest corners of 4chan to the most visible trending topics on Twitter. (A Fast Company piece published last week, written by someone who was indoctrinated into the online alt-right at the age of 13, illustrates what was in the air at the time and the role social media has played in all this.)
By December 2017, when The Last Jedi was released, this was the new normal. The infrastructures for outrage generation, disinformation, and targeted abuse had been cemented. The companies controlling these platforms were unwilling or unable to do much about them.
Perhaps, then, it wasn’t the content of The Last Jedi itself that left it open to this phenomenon. It was targeted for its prime real-estate within popular culture. There’s always been money and attention to be had in generating outrage, and the Age of the Algorithm has turned this into a free-for-all for craven content mills and the idiots with nothing better to do than get swept up in their campaigns.
YouTube’s discovery engine, in particular, seems aligned with perverse incentives that inevitably reward the most outrageous, offensive clickbait. Because Google knows I’ve watched video content about Star Wars, it consistently recommends Star Wars-based videos to me. Here, then, I present to you a selection of just some of what YouTube helpfully serves up to me every time I log on these days:
YouTube in the post-TLJ era is fanning the flames of tabloid-style outrage agitprop with distressing political subtext. It’s a real problem, and I’d be curious to know what discussions Lucasfilm is having about it internally. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from friends and Redditors who are teachers say that their students — mind you, kids in some cases eight, nine years old — are parroting the stuff they hear on these channels about “SJWs” (“Social Justice Warriors”), their brains already being pickled with a skewed anti-equality worldview. (Speaking of Reddit, the fandom became so divided that the platform has spawned the channels /r/SaltierThanCrait for those who wish to discuss their disapproval of the state of Star Wars without pesky SJWs spoiling the party, and /r/StarWarsCantina, a “fun, positive place to discuss, speculate, and talk about all things Star Wars” without every thread getting crashed by the haters.)
Note that, again, I’m not saying you can’t legitimately take issue with this movie — I’ve had a fair number of people make reasonable arguments about things they don’t like about it. I surmise that for some people, they prefer how a movie like The Force Awakens has a high degree of narrative “flow” — Abrams’ movie is more lean-back: from scene to scene, it is structured to maximize an emotional and conceptual through-line which makes it easy to get swept up in and carried away by. By contrast, The Last Jedi operates more like modern serialized prestige television.
Think of how HBO hits like Game of Thrones and Westworld, or Showtime’s incredible, vexing Twin Peaks limited series, require the viewer to lean forward and interrogate the work as it cross-cuts between disparate characters and plot threads and plays meta-games with audiences’ expectations and understandings of theme and symbol. I suspect that a lot of Star Wars fans just don’t want that in this series — they don’t think it “feels” Star Warsy enough. But I bristle against how that puts the series in a box. If I wanted a movie that felt like A New Hope, I’d just watch A New Hope. The Star Wars galaxy is so big, so ripe with storytelling potential, I don’t want to see it cut off at the knees just to follow the conventions that made sense nearly a half-century earlier when this thing was just getting started.
And if I’m sounding like some pro-TLJ militant who will brook no dissent, let me make clear that I’ve got a few nits of my own to pick with this turducken of a movie. I cringe at the scene late in the movie where Rose kisses Finn and tells him they’re gonna win this thing by saving what they love. I think it’s played too hokey, even for Star Wars. I always loathe nonsensical visual shorthands, like the diagram of Snoke’s capital ship that shows exactly where the Supremacy’s hyperspace tracker is — there’s no reason the Resistance would have access to that kind of information. I also think the assault on Crait is too derivative of the Battle of Hoth in Empire: I don’t understand why the First Order has to begin their walker assault on the Crait base from so far away, when the Resistance base doesn’t appear to have the same kind of giant anti-spacecraft artillery the Hoth base did. And I could really do without the battering ram tank and its “miniaturized Death Star tech.” I continue to have misgivings about the overall uninspired production design of the Sequel Trilogy, but a lot of that is just Johnson’s film being boxed in by the choices The Force Awakens already made.
However, these are small (and tedious) complaints, in the face of so much that’s sharp and true to the spirit of this enterprise. More importantly, even if I thought The Last Jedi really, really sucked, I wouldn’t throw my hat in with a bunch of neo-Nazis, trolls, and woman-haters to prove it.
This whole affair has been symptomatic of a deeply unreasonable strain of thought that’s nothing new to American politics and culture, one that’s suspicious of any degree of introspection and opposed to social progress.
Old hat though it may be, it has flared up in new and menacing ways in recent years, as the promulgators of clickbait have learned how to push and pull our reptilian levers more effectively than ever. Today, it’s clear we ought to turn to the true lessons and values that Star Wars has been meditating on for the better part of a half-century— patience, democratic egalitarianism, and above all else, love for one another. And we’re definitely not gonna find any of those at the bottom of a YouTube playlist calculated to generate maximum emotional arousal and cortisol production.
So my advice, at the conclusion of this ten-week retrospective, is that when we all go out and pack the theaters for the presumptive finale of the Skywalker Saga next week, just let go. Find your inner Jedi and allow a damn experience to enter you for a change, rather than having to rush head-long to the nearest keyboard to be the first one with the hottest take. Let’s log off and sit with our own feelings for a few days, before jumping back into the fray of our maddening, never-ending global cultural discourse. I promise you, it’ll be worth it.
[UPDATE 3/29/2020: I’ve written a Rise of Skywalker end cap to this series, so go read it!]
Well, that’s it! The retrospective series has reached it conclusion ahead of next week’s release of Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker. In advance of it, here’s a recap supercut I put together, summarizing the story so far across each of the Star Wars theatrical releases to date:
And if you liked this, check out my video essay on the Galaxy Far, Far Away, Let’s Get Drunk and Talk About ‘Star Wars’: