2017 Has Ruined the ‘Star Wars’ Discourse (Commentary)

The age of Donald Trump has poisoned even our ability to debate whether “The Last Jedi” is a good movie

2017 hasn’t been a good year for many, many reasons. Blame it on Donald Trump and the GOP, or blame it on everything the U.S. government has done or tried to do since January. Whatever you prefer it’s impossible to deny the non-stop hyper anxiety, constant frustration, and outrage that has defined this year.

Unfortunately, all of that anxiety, frustration and outrage isn’t limited to political discussions. It’s getting expressed in unexpected places — for instance, in the debate over whether or not “The Last Jedi” is a good movie.

Arguments about “Star Wars” have always been charged of course. Since at least the prequel era, legions of bad takes like willful-blindness-to-obvious-flaws, dug-in fighting over trivia, and the now-annual “finally admit the movie wasn’t that good six months later” tradition have dogged the “Star Wars” discourse.

But up until now, the discourse, however heated, has generally been proportionate to the issue at hand. However, at the end of 2017, I can’t even have a normal argument about whether or not the latest film is any good without it turning into a referendum on whether or not I am on the right side of history.

Honestly, I didn’t expect that “Star Wars” discourse would reach its nadir with “The Last Jedi” —  I mean, “Star Wars” fans have been through much, much worse than a movie that has a couple of the franchise’s best sequences while also being a huge mess because it’s too preoccupied with undoing what the previous movie set up to worry about being a coherent whole on its own. But here we are.

(Disclaimer: I’m about to mention some arguments I’ve seen from various prominent or semi-prominent internet people, but I won’t link to them. I’m not looking to ignite an internet flame wars with these folks — this column is ultimately about something else. So please keep that in mind as you continue reading.)

This year, we have film critics defending the movie — which is universally beloved by that sector to the tune of 92% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with an A CinemaScore to boot — as if they were expressing some kind important moral truth that is being suppressed. And often with a tone more suited to arguing about about net neutrality with conservative relatives.

Somebody whose opinions on movies I usually respect responded to the haters of “The Last Jedi” by claiming that “every single beat is part of a carefully constructed point” as if that were a self-evident truth that’s patently obvious to anyone with a brain.

It’s a bizarre sentiment to express, given that “The Last Jedi” is the product of a Lucasfilm regime that has in its two previous outings prioritized demographic appeal and “Star Wars”-ishness over quality.

Did that change this time? Did Lucasfilm actually care about the movie being good? I don’t know. But I do know that every time the porgs show up in a scene it’s like they stopped the movie to show us a “Star Wars”-themed viral cat video that bore only the loosest relation to the story being told.

Beyond that I’ve seen numerous folks defend the thing citing subtext that feels more like they’re talking about the real world than the movie. For example, the idea that this new trilogy is about the younger generation having to save the world from the mistakes of the older generation. You’re describing us right now, sure, but I’m not sure what that has to do with the movie aside from the fact that it has an older generation in it. Likewise, I’ve seen several people describe Finn’s arc as being about the struggle our heroes have in converting indoctrinated fascists — except that’s not a thread in the actual movie as presented. The weird thing about this is that you don’t exactly have to dig for themes in “The Last Jedi” because the characters blurt them out regularly. It’s all “hope, hope, hope, military-industrial complex, hope, the Jedi are dumb, hope, hope.” It’s not a movie you have to “read.”

On the other side you have some nerds who didn’t like the movie so much they’re petitioning Lucasfilm to remove it from the canon, with over 56,000 signees as of this moment. It’s a bizarre request, because the “Star Wars” canon has long been filled with awful things, and those prequels aren’t going anywhere. You gotta take the good and the bad if you’re a “Star Wars” fan, because there’s so much bad. So much that it’s honestly surprising it took me as long as it did to break up with the franchise.

You’ve also got the angry racists and misogynists — at this point just a thing you know is gonna happen with any nerd-oriented property, and certainly not unique to “Star Wars.” Yes, there are racist and misogynistic “Star Wars” fans. But those people aren’t new here. Racist nerds are gonna be racist nerds, and the fact that there’s a new “Star Wars” movie out is incidental because they’re like this about everything. Being racist is a lifestyle, not an opinion about a movie.

In 2017, in what might be the most politically charged time in American history since the Civil Rights Movement (which didn’t have social media), we’re unable to view anything the way we would have a few years ago. We’re all super tense all the time, and consequently very cranky. Our collective bad mood about the state of the country bleeds into conversations about everything else. Given that “Star Wars” is the biggest pop culture thing in the U.S., it shouldn’t be surprising that our discussions about it has the same vibe as political arguments.

I get it — “Star Wars” is kinda of our collective safe space, and a lot of folks, miserable about the state of the world, really need “Star Wars” to be exactly that for them right now. For conservatives it’s finally crystallizing in their brains that this series doesn’t even remotely lean in their direction politically, aside from the odd racial caricature (Jar Jar, Watto, “sand people,” etc.). For the other side of the political spectrum, my side, it’s pretty clear cut political comfort food: crowd pleasing, and firmly on our side. So as the battle lines in the culture war become ever more stark every day, it looks like “Star Wars” has been drafted into service.

I’ve written and rewritten this column a half-dozen times in an attempt to get it just right. Spoiler alert: it’s still not working. It’s such an irritating situation, in terms of the discourse about this specific movie but mostly just about the real world situation, that trying to sum it up is nearly impossible. But it goes something like this:

Arguing about “Star Wars” has been a big part of my life for decades, but I can’t do it anymore because in 2017 it’s not fun. I tried for a minute in the three days between when I saw it and when it was released to the masses, but the chatter got so toxic so quickly once it was out that participating just made me feel constantly agitated. I’ve bounced back this week somewhat, by tweeting that GIF of Anakin yelling “I hate you!” from “Revenge of the Sith” — but I can’t even bring myself to try to argue points because nobody on the other side will actually listen and eventually some rando on my side will interrupt and say something weird and/or racist.

And my patience for such things is gone completely in the age of Trump. Thanks, Donald, you’ve made it so I can’t even enjoy complaining about “Star Wars.”