Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Star Wars Subjectivities: The Last Jedi

The one that sparked a thousand flamewars

Art, as you've heard a million times, is subjective. You have the right to like or dislike a piece of art for your own reasons. Back in 2017, our Joe wrote with high praise about The Last Jedi, while The G was less impressed by it. They both present carefully reasoned arguments for their positions, as have many reviewers in the years since. Those pieces prove it's possible to have a civilized conversation about this movie. It turns out you can disagree without hurling vitriol.

Alas, The Last Jedi arrived at an unfavorable moment. It's somewhat tricky to draw a complete genealogy of the troubling signs; maybe we should have paid more attention when the Bronies turned nasty. In quick succession, we had to witness several dark turning points: the nonsense of the Sad Puppies and Gamergate and Breitbart and 8chan, all in parallel with the ascendancy of Trumpism and the implied permission it gave online trolls to be even more openly disgusting. By the time The Last Jedi was shown in theaters, this angry mob had already succeeded in bullying Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones out of social media. They would repeat the same tactic with Kelly Marie Tran, just as the most toxic factions of DC fandom were preparing to scream the Snyder Cut into existence.

All this refers to events outside the movie proper, but the ongoing Star Wars Subjectivities series we're doing at Nerds of a Feather was not conceived as a list of reviews. If that were the case, this post would be concerned with The Last Jedi only from a filmmaking angle. But this blog already did that in 2017. This series of posts is more about our personal experience of Star Wars, and my experience was one of stunned bafflement at how many people could not only fail to appreciate the beauty and boldness of this movie (even though, as I wrote at the time, it really wasn't bold enough), but also make their displeasure a defining trait of their identity. Vicious hatred for The Last Jedi, in the same way as hatred for Ghostbusters had the year before, turned into a quick and easy way for trolls to find each other, a symbol of camaraderie around which all the worst internet trends could converge—incels, PUAs, MRAs, redpillers, MGTOW, all the way down to today's even more blatant forms of patriarchal fascism.

And what, exactly, did The Last Jedi do to deserve so much venom? It pulled an idol down from its pedestal, questioning every moral stance that the franchise had espoused up to that point. We can discuss how effectively or how artfully that iconoclastic act was executed, but what the manosphere disliked was the very attempt. Supposedly, Star Wars is so sacred that daring to besmirch its perfection is inadmissible. This fandom was not new to such overreaction: a decade earlier, actor Ahmed Best had been pushed to the brink of suicide by the magnitude of the hostility directed at his character Jar Jar Binks. I hope I don't have to explain why a badly written script doesn't justify harassing a performer who is just doing his job.

I'll grant that The Last Jedi is deliberately provocative. You don't like Leia flying in space? That's fine. I get it; it does look a bit goofy. Then again, the DNA of Star Wars has no small measure of goofiness. If this scene strikes you as... just too much, I'd invite you to reexamine why you've had no issue with all the other impossible feats of space magic in the franchise. Seen honestly, Leia's flight is not all that different.

You don't like the casino quest? OK, I hear the point. It's the last thing you'd expect to see in the middle of an extended chase where the entire Resistance's fate is at stake. But the director couldn't have been unaware of the reaction the scene would cause. If he made the choice to insert the casino quest at that moment of the story, it's worthwhile to examine what his reasons could have been.

My reading is this: we have the bad guys in pursuit and the good guys running for their lives, a condensed expression of what Star Wars is in a nutshell. Remember Stephen King's Dark Tower series? It famously starts the first book and ends the last book with the same sentence: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." It's an endless cycle, an unchanging hunt that goes on forever. The heavily armed bad guys mercilessly chasing after what little remains of the good guys is so much archetypal Star Wars that this movie lets it cease to be the central plot and become the backdrop. Then we get to the casino, a sort of story within the story, and we're shown what truly hides beneath the never-ending Star Wars.

Money. Yes. Of course. What else did you expect of Disney? At the literal level, the movie speaks of war profiteers who benefit from keeping the war going. But at the symbolic level, the casino is Disney, which benefits from keeping the Star Wars going. The critique needs to be cloaked in the language of storytelling, because Disney is paying the salaries of everyone involved, but it's still a commentary on what Disney has done with Star Wars. By undoing the victory from Return of the Jedi, Disney effectively turned Star Wars into a static image. Bad guys chase good guys, over and over again. Make that a snapshot and sell it every couple years. After Rise of Skywalker, all Star Wars TV shows have jumped back to previous points in the timeline because Disney doesn't know what story to tell when there's no Star War happening.

You don't like the characterization of Luke? Would you have preferred to see him exactly as he was last time you saw him decades ago, with zero evolution, zero growth, zero learning from maturity? Maybe you haven't considered that the sequel trilogy is not about Luke. You've already seen Luke's story. The original cast are no more than guest stars here, because that's what they're supposed to be. Luke has had ample opportunity to research the history of the Jedi Order prior to his own adventures, and he's surely learned what we learned from the prequels: the Jedis were sanctimonious prigs who failed Anakin every step of the way. If the Force is to be used for good ever again, the old methods have already proved wanting.

I would have preferred Rey to explore more her connection to the supposed Dark Side and develop a more complete understanding of the Force. This is what the novels called Gray Jedis, one of the most interesting concepts in Star Wars canon. Maybe it was too much to expect Disney to give up the moral absolutism that forms the core of this franchise. Still, Luke's farewell is beautifully executed and thematically fulfilling.

You don't like the Holdo maneuver? Well, I don't know what to tell you. The Holdo maneuver is awesome.

As concerning as the online reaction to the movie was Disney's reaction to the reaction. One would expect a gigantic corporation with as much power as this one to be more resilient to the barbs of clueless manchildren. But it has been disheartening, after how much I enjoyed The Last Jedi, to watch the studio retreat in panic of the online mob. Rise of Skywalker was a pathetic act of surrender. It told the trolls that they were the ones in charge. The latest such instance of risk aversion was the marketing campaign for the Ahsoka series, where we were treated to the embarrassing spectacle of hearing Rosario Dawson needing to prove her fan credentials before taking the role. In a more sensible world, Dawson would have nothing to prove to anyone; it's Star Wars that should be honored to have her. But in the world of the Fandom Menace, she's expected to be grateful to even be offered the job.

Deep down, I suspect The Last Jedi is a movie about fandom. The Force Awakens characterized Rey as a fan of Han and Luke and Leia, basically a newcomer Star Wars viewer who is still figuring out how to engage with the huge adventures that happened before her time. And The Last Jedi continues that thread by making Rey weigh competing positions on what a new fan's relationship to the original trilogy ought to be. Kylo Ren wants to burn the past, while Luke would rather just not think of it. Rey's solution is to search for her own way. She steals the Jedi scriptures (look again and you'll see the books are 8, as in 8 Episodes of the saga), which I take to mean she's going to diligently watch all of Star Wars by herself and make up her own mind. That's what this movie is inviting you to do, and what the manchildren failed to understand.

Much of the heated discussion about The Last Jedi has been a proxy for a number of issues that are not The Last Jedi. If you truly care for movies, you can't miss the exquisite visual artistry that fills every scene. No, this is not about filmmaking. Your feelings about this movie are used as a shibboleth for your stance on diversity, tradition, and whatever heroic masculinity is supposed to mean in this century.

So let me say it out loud, once more:

I think The Last Jedi is a good movie.

I think it is an outstandingly good movie.

I think it is the best movie of the sequel trilogy.

I think it is the best movie of all nine Episodes.

I think it is the only good movie of all nine Episodes.

And you have every right to think otherwise, because art is subjective, but you don't have the right to make the world an uglier place just because you disapprove of an opinion.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.