Thinking Your Way Through a Labyrinth of Contemporary Issues
StarWars is a franchise in trouble. The profits may belay that, but when you see some of the minority reaction to The Force Awakens, a minority that quickly swelled with The Last Jedi and then seemed to become a majority with Solo, StarWars is in trouble. Why is it in trouble?
Now Rian Johnson, Kathleen Kennedy and others would have you believe that it is because StarWars is moving away from the realms of the cellar dwelling nerds and into the mainstream and these people are bitter about having their icons taken away. That they’re vengeful about women taking a leading role and ethnic minorities taking a role and the “emasculation of the white male characters.” Now I don’t deny that there are a very loud group who do profess those things, but the StarWars fanbase is far wider than that and the discontent reaches into far more than those areas.
I consider myself a Feminist and the new StarWars films left me very troubled. One of my biggest regrets entertainment wise, is paying so much money to go watch Force Awakens in the Cinema. It cost over a £100 for my siblings and my parents and I left that cinema feeling enraged about it. It wasn’t that the main character was a woman, because as a feminist, I really don’t mind having women front and centre in lead roles and as an ethnic minority, it definitely wasn’t about the fact Finn was black. But we’ll get into that.
This critique I suppose is about more than just the role of politics in StarWars, it’s also going to touch upon the writing, the directing and the story line.
The Force Awakens felt at its core, like the laziest piece of fan fiction. I know people like it, and I can see its appeal. It brings back all of those wonderful memories, for the older fans, the original trilogy and for the younger ones who liked the prequels before they grew up a little, that magical sense of OH MY GOD I REMEMBER THAT. It was a massive nostalgia fest, but here’s the thing. One thing the prequels did really well, was handle that nostalgia fest and not allow it to detract from the Storyline. Don’t get me wrong, the prequels have lots and lots of flaws, but they didn’t rely on the nostalgia to get the story moving. They used the nostalgia as fan service on the side. It was never the main selling point of the films. The Force Awakens existed purely as nostalgia. All of it, from the beginning on was a call back of a New Hope. Much of the story line was cribbed from a New Hope right down to the end. The longer the film went on, the worse it got. There was very little original content and what there was didn’t even chime with the established StarWars universe.
Now George Lucas gets a lot of crap for bringing things in that didn’t chime with the established StarWars universe and Force Awakens gets away with a lot of it. For starters, the story is absolutely allergic to any form of exposition, world building and establishing content. Were this film the start of a franchise, it would be excusable, but as a sequel to the end of one, it is absolutely dire. At the end of StarWars VI, the Emperor is dead, the Rebels are celebrating and everyone is free. All of a sudden, we’ve got something called the resistance and the First Order. They both seem like knock off Rebellion and Empire and nobody has any clue whats going on. Apparently in the companion book, things are more explained but even that makes little sense. Nor do I hold with the publishing of companion books to fleece the fans for things that should be in the film.
Nor does the plot, there are two divergent plots in this storyline. We’ve got the hunt for Luke who has disappeared and doesn’t want to be found, but for some reason left a map and the bad guy, a petulant Darth Vader wannabe is hunting after it and the Resistance are hunting after it because they’re losing. The other intersecting but divergent storyline is about a young force sensitive called Rey who lives on not-Tatooine and is eeking out survival before being thrust into the storyline. We’ve also got a side storyline of a black stormtrooper who rebels against authority and joins the resistance.
So there should be plenty of a story to get on with, but there isn’t. It’s just empty. Finn doesn’t make sense, the old Starwars canon has the Empire as a racist Empire, not merely fascist, but truly the definition of space Nazis. So putting a black guy in there doesn’t quite fit, but they scrubbed the old canon so I guess they can have a pass on that. However, the amount of convenience it takes for Finn to get to meet Poe and then successfully escape with him belays belief. It’s like a parody of an escape film where just one too many things go right. But this is a flaw most films make and to a point, people can get round it.
About Kylo, what is his character? He’s a mopey angst ridden annoyance, filled with petulance. I’m not quite sure what LucasFilm and Disney were thinking, but mindlessly slashing stuff with your lightsaber and damaging your own ship in the process is neither menacing nor evil, it just makes you look like a petulant teenager who can’t deal with their angsty emotions. He’s not evil just silly. Compare that to the pure fear factor of Darth Vader (minus that nooooooo). Heck Disney got it right with that golden scene in Rogue one. Compare that to the silent menace of Darth Maul, or the subversive elegance of Count Dooku or even the theatrical brilliance of Sidious going fully evil. Compare Kylo to that. Seeing the difference? He’s got very few motivations and doesn’t really make sense. We’re filled with curiosity, we know that he’s a Solo, just not sure how he’s got there, which is fair because its part of the mystery and part of the story.
So lets get to Rey, the most divisive character in the new trilogy. She is a Mary Sue. It’s that simple, she exists as perfection, no character hates her, everyone trusts her and she’s good at every single thing she touches. Now before you say it, yes Anakin in a Phantom Menace is a Mary Sue, with him being ForceJesus and everything. They demolish that in Attack of the Clones where he is shown to be arrogant, reckless and impulsive. He ends up losing an arm because of it. Rey, despite never having held a lightsaber before, ends up beating a Sith.
Now lets get into that, because there’s a lot of discussion about it. Sith get their power from emotions, Jedi from serenity and calm. So the more enraged Sith become, the more embroiled in emotional turmoil and the more passionate about an objective, the stronger they become. It’s one of the reasons that the Jedi tend to struggle in straight up lightsaber duels against Sith. The general rule is, you hack someone with a lightsaber, they go down and don’t get back up. Sith? They get back up and they get stronger because they hate themselves for being weak. So the idea that Chewbacca’s bowcaster did enough damage to knock Kylo into absolute weakness is rubbish.
Lets turn to Rey and her lightsaber abilities. The first time Luke picks up a lightsaber, he’s so bad at blocking Han laughs his head off saying it’s an antiquated weapon that nobody could use anymore. Luke manages to block one or two bolts and feels emboldened by it. That’s the sum total of Luke in a New Hope. During the Prequels, we see children in their early years using this method of training. That’s how basic it is. If we look at the old canon of StarWars, (I’m not sure if this part has also been scrubbed) we find out that Lightsabers have very little weight and are completely unbalanced weapons. This is very very important. If you ask a modern day swordsman in any style, they would tell you that unbalanced weapons are dangerous to use because they force you to overcommit and to have absolutely perfect balance to counteract it. When its an edged weapon this is dangerous enough but when it’s a plasma blade that cuts through bone like it doesn’t exist, well then. This is a different prospect. Lightsabers require the force to use simply because the reflexes that force users tend to exhibit are the only reflexes fast enough to ensure the weapon moves in a proper fashion. As in to the enemy and not your own limbs. Using a lightsaber is not like wielding a sword, they don’t have the same weight and that makes a huge difference. Even with force reflexes, it takes time and a lot of practice before anyone becomes even halfway competent. Force Jesus Anakin was shown to repeatedly lose or damage his lightsaber and kept getting overwhelmed in AotC.
Some will say Rey is an accomplished staff user over years of defending herself on the sand wastes of not-Tatooine. That would be a fair point if it weren’t entirely nonsensical. Training with a staff is qualification to use a staff. If I trained with a halberd my whole life, I would still be absolutely rubbish when handed a bastard sword. They’re different weapons, with different movements, different patterns of attack and different weights. That would be self evident in other fandoms but apparently not here.
Luke has to train for 3 years and Vader still *toys* with him in Empire Strikes Back. It’s not until Luke scores a lucky hit that Vader gets mean fast and cuts his hand off with the exact same move he uses when they’re still in the carbonite room. This is Luke training with his lightsaber for 3 years. Anakin trains for nearly a decade and still gets beat by Dooku. Rey? No cinch. She picks the thing up and suddenly turns into a lightsaber God. It doesn’t matter that Kylo was wounded, because Rey is a complete novice. She has never used this weapon before, ever. Conceptually, in every way possible it is bad writing and bad characterisation. It’s the sort of thing you see in Harry Potter fan fiction when self-insert characters come in find a badass wand and suddenly are amazing at magic. It’s lazy, silly and disrespects the established universe rules.
Were I writing this in the immediate aftermath of Force Awakens, I’d add a caveat. Maybe Rey was trained beforehand and doesn’t remember and so on, there were a number of theories and ideas. All of that was knocked down in the Last Jedi when Rey continued on the Mary Sue line. After charitably, two minutes training with a lightsaber, she’s now a God at it and is better than Kylo at that overly scripted not-Palpatine’s Throne room fight. Kylo who has been trained as a Jedi or Sith for his entire life.
The Last Jedi picks up immediately after the Force Awakens, there is no time gap at all. So some of the story lines are already in serious, serious trouble. According to the opening crawl, because of the Not-Death Star’s attack on “The Republic” which suddenly compromises of a single solar system in an entire galaxy, the First Order are now the New Empire, replete with untold resources, manpower and all the political power they need. The Resistance is now reduced to a single base with a few hundred people on a planet swiftly being evacuated.
That by itself is an issue, in the space of hours, the entire might of the New Republic which succeeded the Empire as the dominant force in the Galaxy has simply surrendered against a paramilitary organisation in the outer-rim? That would be like the United States surrendering to Japan after Pearl Harbour. There are fleets, planets, and leadership that doesn’t exist in one solar system. No matter how centralised you are, there are always vestiges of leadership elsewhere. In the old Starwars EU, the New Republic didn’t suddenly take over after the Emperor and Vader dies. Thrawn and Daala show up and cause havoc. They slowly fight their way to the core and still have to struggle to maintain control, getting chased off Coruscant a few times.
None of that for the First Order who in the space of what seems like an hour or however long a hyperspace jump is, have taken control of an entire galaxy and suddenly have a fleet of star destroyers that go far beyond their previously established capabilities.
Now almost straight after, we have more issues. Starwars operates in space, seems redundant to say, yet it needs to be said. Space has no gravity. Ergo, lasers should not drop off in a trajectory arc. This wouldn’t be an issue if it were previously established within the laws of the universe, but its not. Instead, all of a sudden we’ve got arcs and trajectories. Then we’ve got illogical bombers that are made of paper and are dead-dropping payloads as if we’re in a WW2 film. Now don’t get me wrong, I love ideas progressing and new and bold visions taking leaps forward. I don’t even mind the occasional retcon here and there if necessary because sometimes, what was hinders too much. Just ask JK Rowling and the whole “You need eye contact to jinx someone” in Harry Potter. But this? It’s already taking apart 8 previous movies worth of material and countless other mediums. Again, this is about how suspension of disbelief works, people will suspend disbelief providing the rules of the universe are consistent. Good movies establish a narrative that fits within the confines of the universe they’re building it in. Now this could mean that in this crazy universe, there is a deadly shark that attacks humans. We know sharks rarely attack humans and boats, but we can suspend disbelief for this film because in that universe that is how it works. Or in Harry Potter, we can suspend disbelief because in this universe there is an entire hidden society even though we could probably come up with 15 different logical flaws on our own without being any great critic. Another huge issue that drastically takes away from the loop of the film, is the fuel issue. Forget the Holdo manoeuvre and how it has broken everything about space combat (and yes it has, don’t even try to defend it) but suddenly fuel is now a factor? What in the hell? This is StarWars, not a WW2 pursuit and capture film. Fuel has *never* been an issue before, yet all of a sudden it is and not in a subtle way where it was introduced as a new concept. But bam, here, accept it or go cry in a corner for we don’t care.
There are dozens and dozens of other examples littered throughout The Last Jedi where Rian Johnson has set out to “subvert the expectations” but in doing so, destroys all continuity with the previous instalments. Its vandalism played out on a galactic scale and it doesn’t even make me mad anymore, just sad that something I loved as a child and as a teen is being treated thus. If Rian Johnson really wanted to be subversive whilst acting within the universe, he could have made a film that followed it from the Imperial Remnant’s point of view rather than the Rebels. In fact, had this been the plan from the start it would have created a heck of a bold vision. Afterall, the Rebellion has replaced the Empire and is now *the* power. That way we could explore the theme of absolute power corrupting, of how even our virtuous heroes in their pursuit of good make more shady decisions and how even the bad guys are rarely if ever completely evil. That behind every sadistic sociopathic monster, there is in the words of Hannah Arendt “A banality to evil.” We’d be forced to confront our wish to root for the underdog when it’s an Imperial Officer giving inspirational speeches to a desperate group of former stormtroopers as they fight to preserve an order that has collapsed. That would be a bold film that would force people to confront difficult truths and completely turn the series on it’s head without actually destroying the essence of the universe. If the OT and Prequels are a warning of how Democracies are turned to tyranny, the new ones could have been a warning of how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, or even a warning against justify the means by the ends of the greater good.
Now a lot of people hit out at the leaning of the politics, which I find a little strange. StarWars has always been left leaning in its political lilt, it is quite literally in the original trilogy about kicking the crap out of literal Space Nazis. Racist, xenophobic genocidal space nazis lose to a multiethnic, multi-species rebellion. The politics has always been there, only it wasn’t so overt. Even though fans groan about the politics in the Prequels, some of the best executed scenes in Starwars were the politics scenes. Like *that* scene in Revenge of the Sith where Palpatine talks of the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise. Yet, even as an avowed socialist and quite a socially liberal person, the way Episode 9 shoves it down your throat simply doesn’t work. It’s not that I disagree with most of the ideas that the film is trying to convey, it is the manner in which it is executed which sticks in the throat. It is the manner in which the ideas are espoused. People don’t watch films *for* the politics, its supposed to be subtle, supposed to work subconsciously and allow you to sink yourself into it. Yet, the way it is handled in Episode 9 is about shoving it in your face to the detriment of the movie. The very movie people are paying to watch. This is crucial, we’re not paying to watch a political broadcast. We’re paying to be entertained with a film. People can accept the political messages in films, they did with the OT. What they won’t accept are poor films that shove politics down someones throat without an attempt to mask the politics or when it takes away from the movie- and it most assuredly does take away from the movie. The scene in Canto Bight is the scene most fans take aim at. This isn’t an anomaly, it is quite rational. The scene feels out of place, it interrupts the closed narrative of the story loop to take you to a place where the story doesn’t feel like it works. The pacing is off and the message hamfisted. If you want to see why the left in the United States never manages to win an election, you need only watch that entire set. It is sanctimonious, self righteous and so in your face that it will get the hackles of everyone not bought into the movement up. As a socialist, often to the left of the issues of the people writing these films, it got my hackles up for how nauseatingly poor it was at getting its message across in any semblance of a manner that didn’t completely unbalance the film.
The entire manner in which the set is handled, from the setting to Rose’s jarring narrative on hatred (especially in a galaxy where slavery exists and Kessel Spice is exceptionally profitable), it simply detracts from an already weak film. What it in essence does, is instead of having the subtlety of the politics across the arc of the OT and the Prequels (And yes, there is a clear storyline drawn between the two to link them up) there isn’t even the semblance of a line. The OT and the Prequels mirror the Roman Republic and are in some ways a cautionary warning to how democracies can be subverted into totalitarian states. Something even more absurdly relevant at this moment in time. The Last Jedi says exactly what? That short term activism will make everything okay? That everyone is just as bad as each other? What exactly is it trying to say?
As George Lucas learned and as many others have learned, when you try to insert politics into a film, do it right or do not do it at all. Politics is one of the most volatile themes you can include in any film and can cause as many issues as viewers it attracts. The Last Jedi fails to deliver politics in a way I’d expect professional writers to manage it and they sound more like whiny 14 years olds after learning about the basics of the system for the very first time. At least Lucas could show he had a consistent plan the whole way through, what on earth is Kennedy’s excuse?
When we look at Feminism, it’s very easy to get lost in the jargon of intersectionality and so on. It can be intimidating to an outsider, especially so to a man who doesn’t understand what on earth is going on. Thats because most of the systems in our society are very easy to miss. We don’t question why we expect our future wife to change her surname, our why we expect her to stay at home with the kids, or why we expect her to do the cooking and most of the housework.
At it’s core, to my understanding, Feminism is about challenging the established status quo that creates a situation where women have no option but to do those things, regardless of whether they want to or not. Sure women can work, but they still end up doing most of the housework. Sure they aren’t legally prohibited from having sex with whomever they want, but have sex with one man too many and you’re now a slut and society shames you for it. A man is lauded for having sex with many women. This is just an example of just one of a multitude of issues within our society that oppress women and other minorities.
Feminism isn’t scary, it’s simply a movement that says she is equal to he and everyone else is equal too. That we shouldn’t rely on systems that coerce social behaviour to create a stable household and that we should find our own balance between consenting adults. If that means the woman works and the man stays at home, so be it. If that means for this particular couple, the woman stays at home and the man works, so be it. Providing the choice is freely made absent social and personal pressure.
How does this fit into film?
Our films are a reflection of our society, the greatest filmmakers don’t invent an entirely new universe, they show us who we truly are in a way we can accept. Sometimes it shames us, sometimes it mythologises us and other times, it forces us to confront the reality of what we are. Feminism is a movement that has been gaining traction for near a century, slowly, society is becoming less and less forgiving of overt pressure to force women into prepackaged social roles and so on, but many issues that aren’t as overt still exist. Yet, we are at a time in modern Western Society when Women have more rights (at least for this fleeting moment) than they have for much of previous history. (I’m discounting the recent full on assault against Women’s rights in the time since I started writing this). There is still a lot of work to be done, but to say that “I am a Feminist” no longer holds the same effect as saying “I am a Socialist” in 60s USA. To proclaim Feminism is no longer career suicide and so we see many people jump onto the moving train, people like Taylor Swift or even British PM Theresa May.
As we live in a capitalist society, near everything, including ideas are there to be packaged and sold by any enterprising individual. Thats how we have the great irony of the millions of pounds being made off the image of a noted Communist revolutionary. Feminism is not immune and as it becomes less overtly controversial, more brands are attempting to leap into the space. This isn’t an altruistic decisions, its a calculated move to market to more customers and to make people feel like they’re not just being exploited for profit.
One of the biggest campaigning points in film as far as Feminism goes, is the absolute lack of strong female roles. Now this doesn’t mean masculine women, it means women that are not defined by the men around them, women that are independent characters that have their own thoughts, motivations and goals and not merely how any of their issues relate to the lead man or whom they find attractive. Since the very beginning of film, Hollywood has had a tendency to depict women as less movers of their destiny and more as objects that are craved, coveted and collected. When we watch older films now, many people will pick up on how antiquated these roles are and how we don’t live in such a boundaried society anymore. That is true, yet we often still lack strong female characters.
What we have, are studios that decide to jump on the bandwagon of feminism by handing a masculinised role to a woman and then scrubbing women out of the rest of the film. It seems incredulous to read, but lets take a look at Rogue One. There is one female character, the lead and the rest are where exactly? We have Mon Mothma who is supposed to, at least according to previous StarWars canon, act as the great leader of the Rebellion who is diplomatic, charismatic and holds together the Rebellion in a Dumbeldore-esque fashion. She’s Princess Leia’s boss. Yes, she’s that badass, she’s Leia’s boss. Mon Mothma doesn’t really speak much despite the incredible scope of her character. We’ve got our heroic men, our scoundrels, our cowards and everything inbetween. We’ve got various aliens and droids but we don’t have women.
This is a wider trend against much of Hollywood, advertise a “Feminist film” (even if they don’t quite say it in so many words) by creating a heavily masculinised female character and then scrubbing other women out of the production. Its like they’ve decided that because people noticed women don’t speak so much, we’ll strip out all the spare women, give the lines to the lead and hope nobody notices that the number of lines never really changes.
As much as we like having women in leading roles, we also need women to be present. Wars aren’t fought by just men, no matter how Hollywood tries to make it so. Society isn’t compromised of just men, no matter how Hollywood tries to make it so. Films shouldn’t be compromised of just men, no matter how Hollywood tries to make it so.
We also have another issue arising, it’s the SuperWoman. She does everything, she is incapable of error, of suffering and exists as just as much an object as the previous ornaments that Hollywood liked to use. There is no character, no human quality, just a God that all women have to live up to. They are quite simply, flawless. Film Hermione is very much like this, in the Harry Potter books, Hermione Granger is a massively intelligent girl who also has very human flaws, she’s zealous, overly so and has a tendency to believe in authority over all else, she also tends to freeze in a crisis despite her courage. Over the series, her flaws are exposed and in some ways mitigated and in other ways taken advantage of, she grows and develops and becomes a different person as we are wont to do between age 11-18. She is a fully fleshed out, human character with motivations, desires and wants and makes her choices for herself. She is relatable and human, that is why book Hermione is a boss witch and why so very many people love her.
Film Hermione is nothing at all like that, she is always confident, always powerful and never makes a misstep. She is always three steps ahead of everyone else and is practically a magical God incarnate. She’s even so magnificent she takes other characters lines and character points and makes them her own (the character of Ron Weasley in the films for example) and other female characters tend to just fade into the background. This effect is becoming more and more common, where we lose female characters as women who are real people, and instead we get characters who have nothing relatable and very little vulnerability. Even their flaws end up being virtues. Ripley in Alien, is such a great character because she is flawed, she is vulnerable and she struggles. Barry Lyndon is one of the greatest Kubric films because the character is so relatable, so flawed, so human. The greatest films ever made all have relatable heroes, even in StarWars we see this. We see a young naive farm body handed a destiny and struggle with nothing except knowing what right is. We see a jaded scoundrel who finds redemption in doing more. We find a badass Princess kicking ass and taking names, but still struggling between duty and personal desire, between vengeance and hope. They’re relatable even if their histories aren’t. They’re flawed and human.
Rey doesn’t have that, she’s bought to life by Daisey Ridley in-spite of the writing, not because of it. We see Finn turned into a comic joke and then denied an arc by an utterly nonsensical plot point with Rose sacrificing the Rebellion to save him. What are they trying to say? Love is destructive?
Ultimately, what we are seeing is not an awakening of a feminist conscience in Hollywood, but a manner in which oppression continues via other means. It’s becoming more covert but its still there as women are erased from the texture of a film by sacrificing a lead role, and that lead role is so remote, so distant that it sets up an unreachable standard of attainment. If you look at what is asked of women to reach the pinnacles of our society, we ask no less of those women and woe to anyone that dares reach for those pinnacles without adhering to the superwoman standard. Their mistakes cost more than men’s do, their flaws are more viciously ridiculed and their moments of humanity are taken as signs of weakness. As Disney and other studious co-opt feminism to their own purposes, we see films struggle under the weight of gimmickry and poor writing and we see yet more unrealistic characters set up on a pedestal for women to follow. For all having a female lead in StarWars needs to be celebrated as a milestone, we should all consider the implications of how Disney and Hollywood are appropriating Feminism for their own greed and in doing so, harming the push towards equality.