This week I review the most recent Star Wars film The Last Jedi and analyse its politics. I discuss its anti-war and progressive tokenism, and why this is ultimately undermined by being symbolic, and not narrative-based. None of the ‘progressive’ character moments or dialogue in the film have any meaningful consequences for the plot, rendering them little more than badges to show off to reviewers. I also complain a bit about The Force Awakens and talk about why Total Recall is a much better film.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download | Embed
Why Identity Politics Matter in Hollywood
I recently saw The Last Jedi. I know most of you who are into Star Wars probably saw it months ago but after my experiences with Rogue One I wasn’t going to pay for this one and I’m glad I didn’t. To dispense with the obvious – I enjoyed quite a lot of the film at the time, it is quite fun and certainly more upbeat in tone than Rogue One, where everyone dies. In this one quite a lot of people die, including Princess Leia, but she comes back to life and flies through the vacuum of space like Superman. That was the worst moment in cinema since the turn of the century. Also deeply ironic because Carrie Fisher is now actually dead, so they’d have been better killing her off in this film rather than embarrassing the entire human race. Instead they killed off Luke Skywalker after a deeply confusing character arc where he fails to train Rey in the ways of the force because he’s done with all that hokey religious nonsense, and then somehow winds up as the hero.
So while the film has lots of good, enjoyable elements it also has a lot of irritating elements, a messy structure, and a tone that varies from mysterious soul-searching hallucinations through to slapstick comedy. What especially bugged me was the tokenistic politics, which was even more ham-fisted in this film than in The Diversity Awakens. But before we get to animal rights and Vice Admiral Gender Studies I do want to dwell on why it is that entertainment, or at least public responses to entertainment, have become so politicised.
Some of the biggest movies of recent times have been designed in such a way as to elicit a lot of support and lip service from progressive liberals, and/or designed in such a way as to elicit opposition from reactionary conservatives. The TV adaptation of Heathers did the opposite, and played to alt-rightists very heavily in its satirising of hypersensitive liberal identity politics. This caused such a controversy that only the first episode has been released, and it is unclear if and when the rest of the season is going to be shown. I believe that this is entirely intentional, that they set out to cause controversy to draw attention to their product. And I thought the first episode was very funny. Quite crude and stupid in its stereotyping of the fat, butch lesbian overlord but still highly entertaining. I can understand why some people would hate it, but that’s no reason to take it off air.
I’ve talked recently about Black Panther and Wonder Woman and other identity politics-laden movies, or at least identity politics-laden marketing campaigns. There are plenty of other examples, not least the push for the next James Bond to be black or be a woman. This in particular reveals the ugliness beneath progressive liberalism – that it doesn’t care about international capitalism or constant war, as long as black people and women are represented. The idea that ‘the time has come for a female James Bond’ is absurd – why would women want to be portrayed as sex-addicted serial killers working for the state? And besides, we’ve already got Carrie in Homeland, who is better than James Bond anyway.
So why is this happening? I’m not the first to observe how, particularly after the fall of Communism many on the Left abandoned politics to take up struggles in other areas of life. Quite a lot of them work for charitable and humanitarian organisations which is all well and good, where those organisations are actually charitable and humanitarian. Some fled to academia, which has grown in size dramatically in the last 30 years. It has probably lessened in influence. Some have got involved somehow in popular culture, though typically not on the production side. After all, a bunch of people who can’t even decide if they’re liberals or Marxists are hardly likely to become studio executives or producers.
Where we do see a lot of liberals, and a liberal consensus, is in reviews and reviewers. Ultimately, reviewing is a parasitic art form, it only exists because it lives off something else that is truly creative or productive. Most reviews are not creative in themselves, they are simply documenting a reaction. So it’s no surprise to see reviewers applauding tokenistic liberalism in movies because they are not only applauding the film-makers for being right-minded and tolerant and progressive, they are applauding themselves. It’s a circular logic, a self-reinforcing dynamic originating in narcissism. After all, why should the opinion of a reviewer matter to anyone? It’s an egoistic, parasitic existence.
Nonetheless, it has an influence. The Rotten Tomatoes effect is real – early reviews correlate with box office receipts, and in particular positive early reviews help guard against the dreaded second weekend drop-off in revenues. So film-makers and major studios are playing to reviewers for capitalistic reasons – again, what is often called cultural Marxism is actually cultural capitalism, and what is called late capitalism is usually late liberalism. Capitalism is alive and well and cultural Marxism is almost an irrelevance at this point.
The Last Jedi
While some people noisily objected to The Diversity Awakens being fronted by a black guy and a girl (my god! A girl!) I had no problem with it because John Boyega and Daisy Ridley were both very impressive. They still lag behind BB-8 in the running for the best character in this trilogy but still, I didn’t feel it was especially tokenistic because they needed some new young characters and they found some good ones. Likewise, in The Last White Guy I had no issues with Rose, a chubby Asian girl, being Finn’s love interest.
However, there were plenty of little tokenistic elements that did piss me off, especially in the pointless side plot where Finn and Rose go to the Casino Royale planet. Basically there’s a ship being chased slowly by another ship so Finn and Rose run off to another planet in a little shuttle to try to find some guy who can help them get onto the other ship and stop it so the first ship can escape. This all proves completely pointless because they get the wrong guy, who then sells them out and it’s only because BB-8 takes over an AT-AT walker and saves them that they don’t die horribly.
While they are on the casino planet they see some animals racing around a track, like greyhounds, but look closer and shock horror, the animals are being ridden by jockeys who are spurring them on with little electric shocks. I mean, the opening of the film sees the First Order and the Rebellion in a big space battle where thousands of people die but what really matters is the low-level abuse of animals raised for racing purposes.
So instead of focusing on their mission and their whole reason for being on this planet they decide to liberate the racing animals and use them to smash up the casino – presumably injuring both the animals and the casino clientele in the process, but we don’t see any of that. And they apparently deserve it, because, Rose tells Finn in her infinite wisdom, the only way you get this rich is by selling weapons. However, we see both the Rebel and First Order fleets in this film, and neither are especially large, and there’s supposedly no one else in the galaxy with any kind of fleet because no one else is fighting the First Order. So Rose is clearly wrong about this, and some of these rich casino dwellers will have made their money in mining, or designing software.
So we have a little tokenistic bit about animal rights and a little token bit of anti-military industrial complex dialogue. Neither of which have the slightest relevance or impact on the story, but both of which will give warm fuzzy feelings to both reviewers and audiences who live behind the protection of the military industrial complex chomping on their factory-farmed ultra-processed fried cheese. This is all undermined a bit later when the guy they end up recruiting to help them explains that the arms dealers sell weapons to both sides of the conflict, and therefore who cares about morality or good and evil?
This is the politics of politically correct genocide. You can fight a mutually destructive galactic war that destroys all life in its path, but if you liberate a few animals and have a black woman and a Chinese-looking girl in your cast then everything’s fine. Even if you only have them in there to appeal to reviewers and foreign audiences so as to maximise your revenues. But apparently this is all about cultural Marxism.
The other main element of The Last White Guy that pissed me off was the Amilyn Holdo character, a.k.a. Vice Admiral Gender Studies. I know that tag has been attached to her in a derogatory way but honestly, she looks like every gender studies lecturer I’ve ever seen, right down to the silly coloured hair and the high-necked anti-cleavage top she’s wearing. Then, for no apparent reason, she spends most of her time in the film patronising and insulting Poe Dameran, the hero from the last film who flew into the thing and blew up the thing.
Now, they could have done something interesting with this and actually built a storyline around it, because Poe does start the film doing something reckless and ultimately self-destructive but he’s still the best pilot they’ve got. So they could have built a back and forth into this relationship whereby Poe has to learn to control his temper so he can help everyone escape. Instead, there’s one scene where she is really condescending, like he doesn’t understand and how can he, after all? He’s just a man and all men are stupid.
Then Poe goes off and does his own thing, temporarily mutinies at one point but it doesn’t work out, basically a bunch of pointless guff with no consequences. Eventually the Rebel ship gets close to the planet they were secretly heading for, and Vice Admiral Gender Studies’ fantastic plan is to launch a bunch of wholly unprotected, unarmed shuttles to take the remaining rebels down to the planet where there’s a decrepit old base. That stands no chance of resisting the onslaught of the First Order, making her clever secret plan that only women can understand utterly stupid and futile.
Admittedly, she is responsible for the coolest bit of the film where she light-speed ram-raids the whole First Order fleet. But they could have just done that with one ship at the start of the film and not bothered with this slow-motion chase sequence that makes up most of the ongoing central plot. Nothing about any of this makes any sense. They could have built a plot device whereby Poe and the Vice Admiral have to team up to save the rest of the rebels, but instead she just gives him some patronising lectures then commits suicide in spectacular fashion. Meanwhile Poe, the hotshot pilot, only does one bit of piloting in the whole film. A total waste of both characters, all in service of a bit of tokenistic womansplaining.
Conveniently, that brings us to Captain Phasma, a character introduced in The Diversity Awakens and kept on for The Last White Guy. She is a female Storm Trooper, a senior officer who wears a bright chrome Storm Trooper suit. It is Phasma who realises Finn is about to rebel at the start of the first film, and then when they sneak onto the Death Star Finn, Han Solo and Chewing Tobacco kidnap Phasma and throw her in the trash compactor.
While the actress portraying Phasma tried to make out she was somehow doing women a favour and that young girls could look up to the character, this again is a piece of deceitful tokenism. Phasma is little better than the commandant of a concentration camp, and being a woman doesn’t change that.
Moreover, Phasma is treated quite brutally. When they’re sneaking about on the Death Star there’s a moment where Phasma is walking down a corridor and Chewie out of nowhere just thumps her right in the face, knocking her down, and they kidnap her. While we don’t actually see them do it, they gleefully joke about throwing her in the trash compactor. Now, she is a Nazi, but I find it odd that they’re advocating punching women in the face and taking joy in abusing them.
Herein lies the problem of tokenism – merely casting someone who you wouldn’t normally see in that position does not, in itself, accomplish very much. It doesn’t challenge people’s perceptions, because people’s perceptions are something much more than a collation of individual symbols. There is a narrative quality to people’s psychological associations, so if you want to confront people’s misogynistic attitudes you need to do a lot more than just have a female Storm Trooper who is then treated appallingly by our supposed heroes.
The guys at Red Letter Media mentioned this – that it would have been nice if, after kidnapping her, she had taken off her helmet like Finn does at the start of the film, and we see that Storm Troopers are just humans, subject to the same flaws. This could have caused them to let her go, or just leave her tied up so they could escape. But instead they keep her in full uniform, dehumanised, and make her the subject of sadistic jokes. Go feminism.
As with several moments in The Last White Guy, they seem to have taken on board the Red Letter Media gang’s criticisms and suggestions when it comes to Phasma. Even after she orders Finn and Rose to be executed, she and Finn fight and he bests her, damaging her helmet so we can see the fear in her eyes. She then falls to a fiery death, like a lot of people in these films, but they did more to humanise the character in that one moment than in the whole first film.
Not that I have a lot of sympathy for Nazis, but if the aim of this cultural late liberalism is to confront people with reactionary, hard right wing views then surely a bit of sympathy and understanding wouldn’t go amiss. Giving the Nazi Storm Troopers a female boss and then having her be abused in the first film and killed in the second film isn’t going to persuade anyone of anything, except maybe that they should stop paying for Star Wars films.
And this is why I am coming to hate this very superficial approach to progressive politics in films. I don’t have a problem with films having political agendas, I also have no problem with films being apolitical entertainment. I’m interested in both, I watch both, I enjoy both. But if you are going to embrace politics as part of your film then it has to be narrative-driven, not symbolic character-driven. Just having a black mob boss, or a female Nazi, or a Latin woman as the hero, does very little except feed into pre-existing dialogues. If your aim is to change something then you have to do something different.
One quick example is Total Recall, one of the world’s most expensive movies at the time it was made and a hugely successful blockbuster. In that film the principal love interest for Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Latin woman who is rebelling against the corporate state controlling Mars. Arnie teams up with her to liberate the planet and destroy the colonial power structure. The love interest is no Mary Sue, she has a fiery temperament and makes mistakes, has weaknesses and flaws but is ultimately a heroic character we identify with and want to succeed. Plus she’s got great hair.
So I’m sure you see the difference between tokenistic characterisation, and overall political-narrative structure. As daft as it might be to make a super-expensive sci-fi action movie with an anti-colonial political context starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a spy, it’s an excellent film that I thoroughly recommend. If you like your super-violence mixed with a lot of weird stuff about ancient aliens and identity crisis, Total Recall is the film for you. Do not watch the remake, it has nothing to do with the original except for the title.
Compare that to Vice Admiral Gender Studies, who spends most of the film fleeing the patriarchal, fascistic First Order in total silence, while displacing her hatred of them onto Poe, as though he’s somehow the problem, and you don’t have narrative thrust, you don’t have emotional connections and sympathy, you have some symbolic crap that will only appeal to the middle aged lesbian feminists in the audience and no one else.