Warning, there be spoilers beyond…enter at your own risk, though I figure you’ve probably seen everything by now.
Anyway, in the name of catching up a bit: let’s talk about Star Wars.
Bottom line, I’m in the “loved it” camp.
It’s not perfect. Structurally, I have things I would like to have seen happen (or a few I would have at least liked to have happened differently). If I were writing it, we would have done some surgery here and there to set things “right”—but then, that’s pretty much the case with everything that gets to be as big and unwieldy like Star Wars is. They never do exactly what I would like them to. My view, though, is that this is a fantastic installment of the franchise, and it opens the door to a whole new way of thinking about the story. Which, in my mind, is the problem for a relatively few but quite loud dissenters who are making a muck of things.
The first thing to realize, of course, is that this is no longer Leia, Luke, and Han’s story. In fact, you can make the argument that both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi is the wrap-up of one of the triad’s story lines (Han coming to his end in #1, Luke in #2, as, presumably, will Leia in #3). If you buy this, the entire idea is to move the franchise into the third trilogy by closing up the Skywalker saga and enable Rian Johnson to transform the Star Wars milieu into a considerably different beast. That was pretty much a guarantee when the powers that be decided to drop the entire alternate cannon that followed on elsewhere.
This may seem like a “well, duh” kind of comment, but the fact that this weird bickering surrounds around the film shows that it’s not.
Personally, I’m pretty excited about that, but it appears that certain fans are not. A group of indeterminate size, but considerably loud persona (tell me when this starts to feel familiar) are unhappy. I’ll call this group the traditionalists and I’ll call the rest … well … the rest. As with any good set of rabble-rousers, the traditionalists are actually factioned themselves. Different people dislike different things, though maybe there’s not as many factions as you would like to think. Vox did a pretty good overview about the kinds of things that fans are bickering about (written by Todd VanDerWerff, a guy who understands a bit about the profession of criticism). It’s an interesting take, and in general I agree with him—the schism seems to boil down to five somewhat intertwined things:
- Too much progressiveness for the alt-right kiddos
- The humor is too jokey for some
- Fan theories weren’t followed (no one was right!)
- Certain plot moments were disjointed
- Character journeys were unexpected
I, however, possessing an engineer’s insane need to simplify things a bit will do a little cleanup here. For example, I would combine the “fan theory angst” group (#3) and the “unexpected character journeys” (#5) into one. They are really quite similar in nature. If you have a preconceived notion on the way something ought to go, and it doesn’t go that way…well, that’s unexpected, right?
Then, on lack of merit, I’m going to throw out the jokeyness quotient and the few somewhat oddly laid plot lines as causes of the split. I do this because, well: Star Wars. I mean sheesh…those things are standard fare. Like I said, I would change things. I get it. But we’ve seen that kind of thing over and over in the franchise, and while it’s always been enough to annoy folks it’s no worse in this film and it’s never created this kind of silliness. I mean, holy cows, man, as VanDer Werff said, things came together in the end so I can forgive a little clunky storytelling. I walked out of the theater feeling better about this story than I have in a very long time. The feel of this film, despite a bump here or there, is amazing.
So, if you’re with me, what we have left is:
- Too much progressiveness
- Fan theory angst/character journeys that were unexpected.
Now we‘re getting somewhere. After reading all sorts of reactions, and thinking it through in a systems kind of way, it’s my opinion that the split of people’s views about this movie boil down to whether the character’s journeys held up to you–were they compelling enough—and whether your comfort level with the more modernly progressive nature of the entirety of the movies—including everything from the simple adjustment of the cast being truly inclusive to the idea of roles with power and heroism being distributed to females and people of color, and the views of the First Order and its corporate ties as the Fascist oligarchic substitute for the Empire’s raw Fascism.
In reality, I propose these two remaining items—dissatisfaction with the character journey and angst over social changes in the franchise—are correlated. Not identical, but coupled tightly enough that one can see members of one group attempting to use the other as cover and at least partially getting away with it. Call it Star Wars gaslighting if you want.
Luke, for example, is a polarizing figurehead in this conversation. Certain traditionalists don’t want him to be anything other than this triumphant swashbuckling hero. They are pained by his fall into a broken person and by his retreat into his own personal isolation chamber. They are upset by the idea that at some point he gave up. Personally, I think that’s silly. It makes a billion times more sense that the things he’s gone through would have worn him down. For me his storyline plays out in marvelous fashion. Here’s a fantastic take on Luke’s off-screen story that says it all much better than I’ll ever say it, but yes, Luke Skywalker is, in my mind, a huge hero in the end, and in context of this world, he’s given a hero’s exit.
You’ll note, however, that this take drops Luke Skywalker off the superhero pedestal and makes him a human being. This seems to be is a problem for the traditionalists, who were wanting the successful and balanced Luke of the extended universe (that the powers already said was being discarded). And it’s valuable to note that, as we progress through the depths of Luke’s breakdown and isolationism, we start to touch on certain ideas that butt up against even more of the alpha-male element of the franchise’s fandom.
It’s like some folks never saw that Leia was the actual strength of the trio, the one with the real head on her shoulders, the one smart one who really cared, and could pull off the dirty work—which makes it right for the story that we get Leia’s death last. Yeah, with Carrie Fisher’s death, it’s going to be hard to pull the storyline off now, but I’m willing to bet the closure of Leia’s story is going to be awesome. But that’s neither here nor there.
This is what I mean by saying the combination of anger at progressivism and dissatisfaction with character arcs are, to some degree, coincident. It’s hard to separate the two. I know there are many people who are not ultra-masculine alt-righters who wish Luke were more swashbuckly heroic in this film—but they wish this despite the fact that Luke has never been an alpha male, that he’s always been as sensitive as he has courageous. The path this storyline makes is a hundred times more reasonable for him, but if you’re wanting Luke Skywalker to be taking his sister under his arm and swinging across the depths of space, well … this is no longer the Star Wars you are looking for, and this pisses you off.
It doesn’t stop there.
Pick about any other element of the character journey issue you want (or the use of the rise of the First Order, or … ) and if you scratch deeply enough you’ll run into at least a taste of alpha-male, rabid-puppy, anti-progressivism. Sure, it’s a scale, a spectrum as it were, but that’s part of the thing we’re facing in just getting along with each other these days—the hardcore right is rising up with considerable pressure today, and against that backdrop we’ve got lots of people who are kind in many ways, and who are perhaps otherwise upstanding folks, but who don’t see or don’t care exactly how close their views and feelings are to certain opinions that they may not be particularly comfortable with.
Anyway…other than to note certain similarities, I’ll leave that there. At best it’s fodder for other posts.
Instead, I’ll say that as far as the Star Wars world is concerned, I think the franchise is pivoting. It’s finishing the Skywalker legacy, giving them all a proper send-off, and in the process it’s playing to the generation of young people who are going to be running things in the very near future. And I think that pivot is pissing a few people off. It’s a calculated gamble, I suppose—especially in today’s social and political age, but if people voting with their $ are any indication, I think that as far as Star Wars goes, the Times They Are a Changin’.
And I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.