If the latest Star Wars saga entry has taught us anything, it’s that the legitimate complaints of huge swathes of fans can be dismissed, ignored and ridiculed if a small number of morons shout loudly enough.
The Last Jedi was easily the most polarising film of 2017, with the division most prominently demonstrated on Rotten Tomatoes, which — at time of writing — has a critical approval rating of 90%, compared to a mere 47% of audiences.
That clearly translated into a lot of column inches praising of the film, and a heck of a lot of dissatisfied cinema-goers grumbling on social media. By contrast, The Force Awakens did stellar business at the box office, by-and-large winning over lifelong Star Wars fans, the general public and critics alike. So what was it about Rian Johnson’s followup — which featured largely the same cast and plot-threads introduced by previous writer/director J.J. Abrams — that led to such apathy for that galaxy far, far away?
The principle of Occams razor tells us that the simplest explanation is usually the most likely: while critics are likely to be impressed by the film’s artistic merits (The Last Jedi is undeniably visually dazzling, is directed with panache and boasts fine performances from its committed cast), devoted fans will be far more concerned with the the film’s place in the broader story and signs that the filmmaker truly ‘gets’ Star Wars. Put simply, fans want to check under the hood and kick the tyres before getting carried away admiring the bodywork.
Indeed, up to now, critics and fans have largely been in agreement about Star Wars. Neither would deny that the original trilogy was spectacular entertainment, imbued with iconic characters, dazzling spectacle and moments of brilliance. The prequels were universally reviled, not just for their considerable artistic failures, but also for horribly botching Anakin Skywalker’s backstory. Similarly, when critics noted that although The Force Awakens was somewhat lacking in narrative ambition, it still delivered the classic Star Wars ‘feel’, with great new and returning characters, and none of Lucas’s ear-scraping dialogue — fans nodded their agreement.
However, The Last Jedi was very different. Ambitious? (Arguably) yes. Beautifully shot? Undeniably. A fully realised directorial vision? I guess.
But: beloved characters were not honoured. Storylines were muddled. Important Force Awakens characters were pushed to the side. Star Wars lore was fundamentally misunderstood. To many, it seemed as though Johnson didn’t really understand Star Wars. It was all very odd.
Inevitably then, the reaction from long suffering, prequel-scarred fans was swift and brutal. This was not at all what they’d waited four decades for.
I bet the back of Kathleen Kennedy’s neck prickled a bit when the negative reactions started appearing on social media from the (supposedly) revered fan-community. Just a couple at first, before becoming a steady stream, then a torrent. While critics were sold on the film, and it did work for a chunk of the audience, it landed with a dull thud for a great many others — perhaps the majority. I’m sure Kennedy was scrambling to figure out what went wrong.
Fortunately, detailed, extensive and thoughtful critiques were not hard to find. Complaints of weak characterisation; plot threads abandoned; jokes that seemed out of place and just didn’t land; mysteries set up by The Force Awakens summarily dropped; character arcs repeating themselves; contradictory, muddled storytelling; the film telling us it was charting a bold new direction while simultaneously pushing the big honking reset button; dubious racial stereotyping; and, worst of all, a beloved hero from the original trilogy inexplicably dragged through the mud.
Surely, just for a moment, Kennedy must’ve wondered if she had a stinker on her hands. Had she sunk the reborn franchise before it even got off the ground?
But then, just as serious concerns perhaps began to creep into her mind, some stupendous moron gifted her with the release a re-edited version of the movie in which all the female characters were removed. This emboldened a bunch of halfwits to scream sexist vitriol across twitter.
Phew! What a relief! The movie didn’t have problems after all; everyone who hated it was just a racist misogynist. Thank the maker! Crisis averted. All-hands meeting with Disney’s top brass cancelled.
All that was left for Lucasfilm to do was put the word out there that the vast majority of the franchise’s formerly beloved fanbase were actually disgusting, sexist racists. You can probably picture the type without much effort: middle-aged, fat, white men still living in their parents basements. These countless millions of dorky mouth-breathers had suffered in silence through the long dark years of Princess Leia (the least distressed damsel in cinema history) and Lando Calrissian (the black leader of a technologically advanced utopian society four decades before Black Panther’s cinema debut) not to mention Mon Mothma, Padme, Captain Panaka, Mace Windu, Captain Phasma, and Rey and Finn. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when Rian Johnson cast two additional women in the seventh sequel. They could hold their tongues no longer. These guys knew deep down that The Last Jedi was a masterpiece — but a couple more female/non-white characters in Star Wars? Over their dead bodies.
And so Abrams, Frank Oz, Mark Hamill, Johnson himself and just about anyone else they could round up were wheeled out to make statements praising the Disney franchise entry, all repeating the mantra that to hold a contrary opinion was to align yourself with human excrement.
The conversation around the film was no longer over its artistic merits, but whether sexism and racism are good or bad things (spoiler: they’re bad things): if you’re in favour of diversity and representation then you must defend The Last Jedi; if you dislike the film then, be honest, you just hate women, right?
This shift actually placed Mark Hamill — Luke Skywalker himself — in a tricky spot, since he was the first to voice his displeasure. His concerns — related to the crass, dishonourable way Johnson had written his character — precisely mirrored the fan reactions to follow.
“I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character”
- Mark Hamill
To be clear, Luke Skywalker is not a character in the original Star Wars movies, he is the character. He is not a protagonist, he is the protagonist. Fans do not demand that his character shouldn’t be challenged, or put through the emotional wringer, but there should be respect, and, dare I say it, a degree of reverence. At least as much as was afforded Han and Leia and Yoda and Chewie. There was certainly never a question of making any of them child murderers. Of course, Hamill isn’t movie-star royalty like Ford, nor a feminist icon like Fisher. But to Star Wars fans, he is everything. I wonder if Disney really understood that, or indeed ever will.
So, once the tide began turning against dissenters — once the massed artillery of Disney’s marketing divisions started working on reinforcing the narrative that the outrage fans felt was really only a front for their insecurities — Hamill faced a choice: retract and repent, or risk being lumped in with those guys.
Naturally, he changed his mind (at least publicly). Who could blame him? Sure, Star Wars is important to Mark, but not nearly as important as his commitment to promoting equality and diversity — as it should be for everyone. It was an easy decision for him: he just buried his criticisms and got on board with the film. It is only a film. Luke Skywalker is only a character in a movie. But a part of me will always be sad about what they did to him*.
As for the rest of us? Disney and Lucasfilm have made it clear exactly how much they care about fans. So long as we’re shelling out cash for the next unasked-for origin flick and Darth Vader soap dispenser they love us, but the second we show a hint of dissent they’ll call us the sort of names that would make your mother blush.
*True fans will always be able to hold on to Hamill’s delicious act of sabotage during production. If the actor playing a role decides in his own mind that he is portraying someone else, there isn’t a damn thing the writer or director can do about it. May the Force be with you Jake Skywalker. The adventures of Luke Skywalker are free to live on forever in the minds of those who know him best: the fans.