An audio version of this essay is available to subscribers, provided by curio.io.
Ariana Reines’s poem “Save the World” describes, among other things, the experience of going to the cineplex to see a science fiction blockbuster. The lines quoted below come as the speaker of the poem is watching the movie:
I can see that they intend to do this
I can see that they think
We deserve this
We should be punished
We must want what they are punishing us
They are giving it to us
And they are definitely doing it in this way
At such length
In these colors
Because they mean to
It is clear to me
They are disgruntled in Hollywood
They are blaming us
For what must be their grave
Disappointment and sorrow
Having recently been at a cineplex myself to watch a science fiction blockbuster, I could relate to this. We went to see The Last Jedi last week, out of an obscure sense of obligation (how else would I be able to participate in society?), and throughout its seemingly endless running time, I kept reminding myself that we chose to be here, we chose to see this, and that they made this movie no better than it needed to be.
I began to interpret the entire film, its plot and its character development and not just its mere existence, in light of this feeling. That is, I began to see the movie’s story as a comment on its own existence (maybe all films work this way?) and the stakes of it as whether we should ever have to watch another Star Wars movie again. Of course, Disney is going to make them. That is certain, but do I have to go and watch them? Do you? Does Adam Driver?
Driver is contractually obligated, I’m sure, to be in the next one, though when he made his pitch to Daisy Ridley about halfway through the movie to just join with him and put an end to the meaningless fighting that does nothing but propel sequel after disappointing sequel, rehashing the same plot devices, the same “twists,” the same Oedipal preoccupations that you are stuck with when you conceive of the “battle between good and evil” as an essentially apolitical fight, I wondered if he was speaking for himself. Let’s get together and we can all go home. I thought to myself, Yes! Join him! I’m already out of Sour Patch Kids.
It felt to me then that Driver was speaking not only for himself but for screenwriter-director Rian Johnson and for all of us really who grew up with this franchise, which lured us in with mind tricks and attention-deficit pacing but has done little to actually earn any allegiance from us. The morally thin and conceptually incoherent galaxy far, far away has nothing to offer but collectible action figures and quasi-Jungian claptrap about bloodlines and chosen ones. Driver seemed to be saying, Who needs it? What’s worth saving here? We’re a new generation (it’s no accident that the “First Order” is depicted as being run by a bunch of millennials) and we could be doing something better with our time than this. Let’s turn whatever power we have against this whole phony construct of “rebels” and “the empire” and focus on how power actually works.
It seemed like Driver wanted to set us all free. I thought I could see it in his acting style throughout the film, which struck me as subversion, in his low-key sulking and the sense of irony overshadowing his character’s emotional outbursts. In his shirtless, emo mind-melds with Ridley, he seemed to have been ported in not from another planet but from an entirely different movie. His screen presence was a constant Verfremdungseffekt, always reminding the audience that they don’t have to suspend disbelief for anything happening onscreen and should think instead about why this movie is the way it is, and how he ended up in it. It seemed like his character’s “enemy” was not Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia or whoever the plot pits against him but the whole concept of Star Wars itself.
The script seemed in on this as well. It makes a point of subverting the framework in which narrative significance is represented as a family inheritance: After teasing a big reveal, Driver eventually tells Ridley’s character that her “real parents” were basically lumpenproletariat nobodies, so why is she fighting to preserve a mythology where the “important characters” are the ones related to the “noble” characters from the original trilogy? Actually her “real parents” are whoever George Lucas says they are, and who really cares about that? This is a guy who wanted to name one of his universe’s bad guys Darth Icky or Darth Insanius. Or maybe Disney’s CEO now decides what happens. Either way, so what?
But even more damaging to the supposed stakes of Star Wars is the scene in which some characters for some seemingly ad hoc reason have to go to a casino planet to find a magical keymaster during a kangaroo race. The whole point of this tangent seems to be to reveal that there is a universe beyond or behind the one in which the battle between the forces of light and darkness, and good and evil, and the “rebels” and the “empire,” means everything. Here we are shown a planet full of fat-cat arms dealers who outfit both sides of the conflict, who don’t care who wins the light-saber battles, and who no one with the full flowering of the Force flowing through them seems to have ever thought to struggle against before. If the rich people who fund and profit from “the struggle between good and evil” will survive and thrive no matter who wins, then what difference does that struggle make? Maybe Driver and Ridley really should be joining forces, as Driver proposed, so they can take the fight to the real Darth Icky: capitalism
This scene renders everything else we have ever seen in the Star Wars films moot. None of the ostensible storylines about a quasi-religious struggle over the power of the life force in the universe ever mattered, because behind all those were a cabal of greedy industrialists who truly dictated the action — in fact there has been a star chamber of producers and technology makers who have orchestrated this battle to perpetuate it for their own ends. It’s almost as if the true villain is Hollywood.
The Last Jedi struck me as a movie that flamboyantly hates the conditions that made it possible, populated conspicuously by millennials, a generation accustomed to being blamed for conditions that they have inherited. They are trapped in a galaxy where they have to process all the nonsense and mouth all the incoherent lines about “the Force” and “trusting your feelings,” while all the fruits of their efforts are funneled out to a few hundred people who couldn’t care less. In fact, those people enjoy the privilege of their own cynicism, producing movies about how tricky it is to make popular movies, or movies that seem full of ill-concealed contempt for their audiences.
At times, I could almost believe The Last Jedi wanted to set its audience free, that it wanted to offer a new hope. But if the backlash is any indication, that audience is not interested in freedom. Most likely, I too will go to see the next film in the series, as if it were some sort of civic duty, and I will be just as disgruntled with it then as I am now. I’ll still want what they are punishing us for wanting, and I’ll still be hoping they can make a better spectacle out of it.
(This post taken from my newsletter.)