Last time I said I was going to talk about what makes something “feel” like Star Wars. However, there’s no way we can get near that topic without talking about The Last Jedi, and I’m always wary of bringing it up because of how divisive it is. So before we get started, I need to head off the fight that’s been simmering since 2017. Specifically, I need to give the shove to the angry nerds and culture warriors who have made Star Wars fandom yet another front in their goddamn global slap fight.
We can divide these folks into two overly-broad and reductionist categories:
- “Everyone who hates The Last Jedi is a sexist manchild that’s afraid of female empowerment and just wants endless remakes of the original trilogy!”
- “Everyone who claims to like The Last Jedi is an SJW cuck shill who only likes the movie because it shoves their ideology down everyone’s throat!”
These arguments take many forms. There’s the direct assault of, “Your opinion shows that you are a bad person who hates art / people.” Then there’s the more indirect attack along the lines of, “Clearly you weren’t paying attention, or you’re ignorant of Star Wars, or you don’t understand how warfare works. Therefore your opinion is invalid.”
To be clear: I’m fine if you love the movie. I’m fine if you hate it. I’m fine if you’re indifferent or you haven’t seen it. We’re friends! It’s all good!
What I absolutely cannot bear are the people who feel the need to project insidious motives onto the opposition, or who see their appraisal of the film to be some sort of position of virtue. I’m not going to mince words: These arguments are not welcome here. If you get anywhere near projecting stupidity / malice onto the opposition, or if you drag in any culture-war arguments, or if you’re obviously pissed off and spoiling for a fight, then I’m going to delete your comment without warning. I promise to be unreasonable and trigger-happy about this, because this argument has been driving me up a wall since the movie came out and I’ve basically lost my patience with the entire mess.
Why Does This Have to be so Difficult?
I find TLJ to be a fascinating movie. I don’t personally care for it, but it’s an interesting movie to examine for the way it pulls at the various threads of “What makes something FEEL like Star Wars?” It embraces some aspects of the series and thoroughly rejects others, and this reveals all sorts of differences among fans about what they’ve been celebrating all these years.
My frustration is that we can’t ever have this analysis because as soon as the topic pops up, the angry haters and sanctimonious scolds show up and fling shit at each other until it’s impossible for the rest of us to have a reasonable conversation about laser guns and space wizards. They suck the joy out of everything by threadjacking every Star Wars discussion to serve their insatiable hunger for more chances to rage about all the Wrong People who plague the world with their constant Wrongness.
Also, all of this applies to the passive-aggressive weenies who show up with the attitude of, “Shamus, this culture war stuff is super-important and as a society we need to talk about these things and you’re being immature by not letting us use your blog as a place to host our shit-flinging competition. Besides, it’s literally impossible to discuss a piece of art without using it as a lens to project villainy and disdain onto the Bad People in the world because that’s the only proper use of art.”
You’ve got lots of places to have your culture war. Go find someplace on Reddit to rage against the Great and Horrible Other Tribe. I’ll allow that sometimes cultural conversations are important, but there are lots of things that are life-or-death important in the world. If we’re only allowed to discuss important things then we might as well abandon all forms of entertainment criticism because we can’t talk about frivolous things while [insert global crisis] exists.
This is my website and I want this little corner of the internet to be a place where I can talk about Star Wars without a bunch of emotionally incontinent ideologues dragging us off-topic and creating endless stress and moderation headaches for me.
I’m Just Trying to Stay Sane
I sincerely apologize for the combative tone. I really want everyone to enjoy this discussion and this website. I realize that starting off with all this negative energy isn’t helping. I’m hoping that if I’m abrasive enough, then the Usual Suspects will steer clear of the topic rather than trying to push me and see how much they can get away with.
Like I’ve said before, I’ve got people I love and care about all over the cultural and political spectrum, with quite a few landing at the more extreme-ish ends. Their rhetorical sniping is often painful for me. Over the last few years I’ve become frustrated at how hard it is to keep this place friendly while still discussing the things that interest me.
TLJ didn’t sit right with me, but I have no quarrel with anyone who loved it, or thought it was exactly what Star Wars needed. I’m not going to try to persuade you otherwise, and I certainly wouldn’t want to take away the joy you have with this film. Love it or hate it, we’re all cool here as long as we’re all willing to accept that – as a departure from earlier works – there is plenty of room for critique, praise, and analysis when it comes to The Last Jedi.
Okay? Great. Now that I’ve set some limits, hopefully I can mention The Last Jedi without starting a war…
The Demolition Man
I said above that I’m not a huge fan of TLJ. On the other hand, I actually really like writer / director Rian Johnson. Or at least, I dig the kinds of things he does as a creator. He’s the Demolition Man of genre films. His favorite thing to do is to take a set of established tropes and destroy them by (and this is the part everyone gives him shit about) subverting audience expectations.
This is an artistically valid thing to do! In fact, that’s sort of what created Star Wars. Lucas took the classic fantasy template of castle-stormingIn case it isn’t clear: The Death Star is “the castle”., princess-saving and villain-dueling in a world of simplistic black-and-white morality, and set it in the context of a space adventure with lasers and starships. This was essentially subverting the expectations of both genres. Fantasy fans expect their heroes to ride horses and use a bow, and sci-fi fans of the time often expected something cerebral, speculative, scary, or perhaps even horrific.
There was nothing apparent in the Star Wars script that would indicate that Lucas was about to smash box office records and create a cultural sensation. A lot of people thought his film sounded like a terrible idea because it didn’t fit into the expectations of the audiences of the day. In short, if you’re not willing to mess around with audience expectations then you can’t create explosive new things like Dr. Stranglove, The Godfather, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, or ShrekYes, the Shrek series went to hell. But that first movie? That was VERY clever and unexpected on several different levels. Same goes for the Matrix, I suppose..
Demolishing a genre is not necessarily a bad thing. A certain degree of creative destruction is needed to keep things fresh and interesting. And if you’re looking for someone to mix up the status quo then Rian Johnson is the right man for the job.
His most recent movie Knives Out is a perfect example of this. He creates a classic murder mystery setup: An opulent setting of old wealth, a dead guy surrounded by jerks with reason to want him dead, a fortune for a family to fight over, and a detective that needs to solve the crime under some sort of time constraints. We’ve all seen that film. It’s a good concept and a lot of brilliant movies have been made using that template. But it’s also really fun if the director takes all of those expectations and uses them against us by presenting actions and situations that might make sense in the real world – or in another genre entirely – but brazenly violate the conventions of the given genre. Knives Out started with the classic Agatha Christie premise and then broke from tradition again and again, then sort of walks it all back near the end before doing one final reveal that again turns the thing on its head.
Some mystery fans might love a plot that keeps them guessing, while others might feel this story is annoying because of how self-aware it is of its own genre and how much it fails to deliver on the situations they’ve grown to love. You could say this movie reveals the differences regarding “What makes something FEEL like a murder mystery?”
Let’s look at an example of this sort of genre trolling The Last Jedi…
At the start of the movie, Poe is pressing the attack on the enemy despite the long odds because he’s selling the sort of “faith and hope” optimism that the original movies ran on. But beloved fan-favorite Leia was arguing against this. So we start off in this unsure space where we need to choose between the character we trust and the tropes we’ve come to expect. We don’t normally have to choose between these two things, but here we are. So then people try to reconcile this by arguing about the strategic value of what Poe was doing, but this is Star Wars and the universe isn’t designed to withstand this sort of technical analysis.
A few scenes later and Holdo is suddenly in charge. She’s making decisions that don’t make sense to us right now. Her attitude picks up where Leia left off, so if you sided with Leia earlier then you’ll probably trust Holdo. But if you tried to follow the familiar tropes then you’re siding with Poe, and he doesn’t trust Holdo. So then Poe goes to her and makes a gentle appeal, “I just want to know what’s going on.”
Holdo then mocks him for even asking. She demeans him with a smirk and calls him a “trigger-happy flyboy”. We’re here to see him save the day and she says he’s “The last thing we need right now.” This pits her directly against the desires of the established characters and the audienceOr maybe not! If you’re here to watch Poe be an ace hero that saves the day, this is frustrating. If you’re hoping for something fresh and unexpected, then here you go.. Meanwhile the shot is framed so that she is both literally and figuratively looking down on him. Then instead of answering his question, she pulls rank and puts him in his place, leaving his concerns – which are also the concerns of the audienceOr maybe not! Maybe you’re already on board with Holdo and you see her as a lifeline to pull this series out of its 40-year rut. – unaddressed.
She’s pulling rank, expressing disdain in response to a gentle appeal, keeping secrets from trusted characters, and mocking characters for embodying the heroic archetypes we love. And finally, her visual design is a little off from the white-robed leadershipLeia and Mon Mothma being the two characters that feel closest to the sort of role that Holdo inhabits. we’re used to in Star Wars, making her feel a little out-of-place.
The filmmaker has covered Holdo in villain signifiers. The writer has put a giant flashing sign over her head announcing, “THIS CHARACTER IS A VILLAIN! SHE WILL BETRAY YOU IN ACT 3!” Rian Johnson is using genre conventions to freak us out. For a lot of people, I’m willing to bet this was completely unconscious. They didn’t know why they didn’t like her. They were just following the subtle cues that they’d learned from a hundred other movies.
In the movies, Good Guy commanders aren’t supposed to pull rank because that doesn’t fit with the idealism of close friends fighting side-by-side. High-ranking characters always have this elder wisdom thing going on, “Look private, I COULD pull rank on you, but I can tell you’re a good kid. So here is some folksy advice that is directly relevant to your character arc…” Captain Picard did that sort of thing all the time. He was supposedly the captain, but he handed out gentle advice like he was everyone’s dad. That’s not how military commanders work, but that’s how fictional military commanders work in hippie style space-militaries like Star Wars and Trek. In movies pulling rank, keeping secrets, and mocking subordinates are all major villain signifiers.
In the real world Holdo’s actions would be perfectly reasonable. Low-level grunts don’t get to go around questioning the orders of their superiors. Like, just asking is a breach of protocol! It doesn’t matter how cool or well-liked you are, the chain of command exists for a reason.
The gender politics folks like to jump in here and project their gender arguments onto the situation. And yes, there’s this really irritating side-argument about “This is what the scene is saying about gender but you’re too [exhibiting a personality flaw] to see it” versus “The scene isn’t saying that, you’re just projecting it onto the work because you [have some shortcoming as a person]!”. It’s arguments and accusations all the way down. This is one of the reasons discussions of TLJ are so volatile: These moments that defy expectations and genre conventions mean we can’t even agree on what the author is saying. Not only do we disagree on whether or not we like a particular creative decision, but we can’t even agree on what the decision was, why it was made, or how we’re supposed to interpret it.
But look: This gender argument is a distraction because the conflict doesn’t go away if you swap the genders around. Imagine if Holdo was replaced by a square-jawed dude with a forceful personality and Rey was the one questioning himOr if you prefer, both of the characters are the same gender.. When that guy goes out of his way to “put her in her place” the way Holdo does with Poe, it would set off all the same confusing alarm bells in the audience. We’d instantly have him pegged as a bad guy and be waiting for him to get his comeuppance in Act 3. Criticisms of, “I hate him! He’s acting like a villain!” would be met with “No! He’s acting realistically! This is how a real military works!”
So your interpretation of entire scenes can change based on how loyal you are to the tropes of Star Wars. These differing interpretations compound as the movie goes on. If you side with Poe because he’s talking like a character from A New Hope, then you’ll be against Holdo when she shows up, which means those villain cues will signify her as a villain for you, which means you’ll see Poe’s rebellion as heroic and then be confused and frustrated when it isn’t. If you side with Leia instead of the tropes, you’ll go in exactly the opposite direction. People think this is an argument over gender, or military structure, or fictional technology, but it’s really an inkblot test for genre tropes.
I’m not suggesting this is the only reason people can’t agree on this movie. This is just one fault line of many. But this is the part I find really interesting. This rift has always existed in the audience. It’s just that we couldn’t see it until TLJ came along.
This is Not an Accident!
Rian Johnson’s genre-bending shenanigans have caused this rift. Holdo is acting like a villain according to the established cues of the sci-fi genre, and yet she isn’t actually villainous. It’s a pretty cheeky move as a writer and I find the deliberate ambiguity to be incredibly frustrating, but it’s not like genre fake-outs are some forbidden thing. Lots of movies zoom in on someone and play ominous music, only to reveal later that they’re actually a good guy.
Everyone argues about this scene and they shout at each other because the “other side” is apparently too dumb to interpret the scene properly, but this rift isn’t an accident. It’s not like Rian Johnson accidentally made this scene confusing for people to parse. What we’re seeing is a rift created, on purpose, by the script. Some people are interpreting the scene using the typical Star Wars genre expectations, and other people aren’tOr they’re keyed into different tropes. Or they prioritize the tropes differently. It’s complicated.. Almost every controversial scene in the movie is a result of this sort of deliberate exploitation of genre cues.
These things also tend to snowball as the movie goes on. If you see Holdo as A Problem, then this will impact how you interpret later scenes, and so on. If you’re already on Holdo’s side here, then your opinion of Poe will only get worse as the movie goes on. You can argue that an action was strategically sound or not, but there’s always some interpretive wiggle room because the two characters never reconcile, which means the director never has to embrace any particular interpretation.
You can try this sort of analysis yourself. Take a scene that starts arguments and look for the tropes Johnson is using to throw the audience off-balance.
There’s a lot more to say on this topic. I haven’t even begun to cover the “Star Wars feel” stuff yet. But I think I’ve said enough for this week and I sense a lot of people have pent-up frustrations or praise they want to express regarding TLJ. We should probably have that discussion before we go any further.
We’ll come back to this next week.
Reminder: It’s fine if you strongly love / hate TLJ, but before you comment make sure you’re at peace with the fact that many people in the comments will Hate / Love it for reasons that will feel alien to you. If you don’t know how to do that, just try to express your frustration / appreciation in terms of how it made you feel and don’t project motives onto people that disagree. (Also, resist the urge to tell people their feelings are wrong, because That Would be Silly.)
Hate on movies, not on fans and critics. (Or the director. Look, Rian Johnson really got on my nerves in this movie, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy that hates me / Star Wars.) Art is tricky. Don’t make it personal.
This will be more fun if you go in with with a good attitude. Thanks in advance!
 In case it isn’t clear: The Death Star is “the castle”.
 Yes, the Shrek series went to hell. But that first movie? That was VERY clever and unexpected on several different levels. Same goes for the Matrix, I suppose.
 Or maybe not! If you’re here to watch Poe be an ace hero that saves the day, this is frustrating. If you’re hoping for something fresh and unexpected, then here you go.
 Or maybe not! Maybe you’re already on board with Holdo and you see her as a lifeline to pull this series out of its 40-year rut.
 Leia and Mon Mothma being the two characters that feel closest to the sort of role that Holdo inhabits.
 Or if you prefer, both of the characters are the same gender.
 Or they’re keyed into different tropes. Or they prioritize the tropes differently. It’s complicated.
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