Neoliberal Cinema and the Cultural Politics of The Last Jedi

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers about The Last Jedi, but given that this film has already spoiled Star Wars for me, these spoilers probably won’t really spoil anything for you.

In December I took my children to see The Last Jedi, the most recent instalment in the Star Wars franchise, which was directed by Rian Johnson. What unfolded before our eyes was, simply, one of the worst films I have had the displeasure of watching, and, without doubt, the source of the greatest sense of deflation I have experienced since John Major and Albert Reynolds issued the Downing Street Declaration in 1993. What connects the cultural logic of this film to the boring content of that meaningless document is their shared wallowing in blandness, shored up all the more thoroughly by pre-release marketing in which static, vacant nothings are promoted as imminent, exciting somethings. Within the closely linked cultural and political fields, both film and statement are revealing exercises in the imposition of blank and empty voids upon the map of human agency. These sterile artefacts, one cinematic and the other political, are products of the same insincerity and paucity of vision that characterise the permanent state of disappointment that we now identify with neoliberalism. While they are formally distinct and have been released decades apart, they are also, in their common emptiness, rather similar articulations of the strange and disenchanting barrenness of late capitalism and dreary iterations of its most basic strategy: the endless stalling tactic.

Like my optimistic teenage self, who missed a morning at school in 1993 to behold the spectacle of two prime ministers saying nothing in particular, I once more became a victim of thwarted idealism. I should have seen this coming, of course, and I really ought to have corrected my deluded belief that, despite the incorporation of Star Wars into Walt the Strike Breaker’s evil empire, some good might have come out of Disney’s investment in my favourite science fantasy series. What could go wrong, I wondered, with their appropriation of wholesome adventure narratives predicated on a long-running and desperate galactic anti-imperialist insurgency, in which brave heroes participate against all odds? It isn’t for nothing that the villains in Star Wars have always been ruling class Brits, after all – something that I and my childhood pals always identified with. However, with this instalment, an acute sense of let-down took hold from the get-go, as essential pacing and valuable minutes were sacrificed in one ill-conceived plot sequence after another, beginning with the woeful spectacle of the latest rebellion’s best pilot, Poe Dameron, putting a First Order dreadnought battleship “on hold” while he pretended to dial up Princess Leia. Yes. That’s right: that’s exactly what he did.

The bullshit scanner on my imaginary R2 unit was already flashing loud and clear by now because I had been here before in the summer of 1989 during my first exposure to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which an until-then peerless adventure franchise became subordinated to the telling of bad jokes and abysmal slapstick. Fake humour and its depletion of narrative always draws simulated laughs from audiences who are now very well-conditioned to obey the prompts of humourless script panels. Poor comedy doesn’t need the artificial canned laughter of fake audiences anymore because consumers, sorry, audiences, pay good money to go along to the cinema and provide it.

Bad as the film’s opening scenes were, they didn’t even approach the grating abrasiveness of what followed. The film’s basic dullness could be gauged from its many desublimations of the Force, all of which were particularly irritating. These began with the preposterous image of Carrie Fisher using her abilities to float through the freezing vacuum of outer space while everybody else who had been blown out of her ship had, presumably, been turned inside out by the rigours of decompression. The spectacle of Princess Leia flying to her ship after the fashion of Mary Poppins was a truly appalling thing to behold. Rey’s chastising of Kylo Ren for not wearing a shirt during one of their telepathic skype chats also stands out as a signally impoverished moment among so many more. Yet these violations didn’t even approach the very dull finale’s concluding cop-out, centring on Luke Skywalker’s spectral projection of himself from a distant planet – something that I (and, doubtless, many others) were already on to from the second he appeared at the besieged rebel base. Worse, still, was his luring of Kylo Ren away from his forces for a lightsaber duel because a sea anemone could have identified the Jedi’s fake appearance as a spectral delaying tactic, especially after the villains vaporised the spot where Luke was standing with their heavy space artillery without inflicting any harm on him. Even I, without the benefit of Rey’s approximately nine-or-so hours of Jedi training on Ahch-To, saw that one coming.

Burning the Archive and Denying the Past
However, what I could never have anticipated was Master Yoda’s dismal cameo, in which he shows up on Luke’s hideout to set fire the last of the ancient, sacred texts that had survived from the founding days of the Jedi order and were carefully preserved over millennia. On one level, this might be read as a kind of self-reflexive exposition by a director who is new to the series (and, unfortunately, one who has been granted control of more episodes), declaring his promise to tear up the foundational cinematic myths of the series. This he already did with the plethora of witless japes to which we had been exposed by this point in the film, but Yoda’s incineration of these rare manuscripts was, really, a disturbing indication of the film’s ideological position and trajectory: a direction of travel in which culture and the heritages that it has accumulated are presented as a hindrance to the unstructured and chaotic nature of capitalist destruction; when “all that is solid”, as Marx put it so memorably, “melts into air”. For metacommentary to work it must possess some degree of sophistication, and the spectacle of Yoda summoning lightning from clouds was painfully inadequate to the task.

Turning to the Dark Side
The very deliberate damage done to Star Wars by Rian Johnson and his masters among the dark lords of the Disney Corporation has an important ideological objective that was identified by the cultural critic, Mark Fisher, who very perceptively warned us about the deadening tendencies of neoliberalism (1). These, he argued, are committed to the removal of pleasure from everything. For Fisher, this explains the acceleration in the homogenization of popular culture since the mid-1990s and its role in the erosion of the popular imagination (for example, he cites how impossible it is to distinguish pop music recorded in 1996 from that recorded in 2013) (2). The Last Jedi is illustrative of this intensification of blandness because producers, directors and writers had to conspire very hard to come up with an effort as poor as this. Doing so was, from a certain point of view, quite an accomplishment, too, given that the previous instalment in the series, The Force Awakens, for all of its derivativeness, was actually entertaining. While George Lucas’s prequel series from the early 2000s was chronically flawed due to its subordination to cartoon-quality CGI and some rather desperately written dialogue, this latest episode was following on from a decent enough effort written and directed by J.J. Abrams, the man who made Star Trek movies watchable, and a suitable follow-up was promised and expected, but never delivered.

The Last Jedi was, by any standard, very badly written. This is without doubt the consequence of the script itself having been farmed out to panels and, I suspect, as with any “blockbuster” these days, also an outcome of shooting multiple scenarios and scenes that can be endlessly switched, modified and realigned in conformity with corporate and marketing audits. (3)  The simple fact is that no single human being capable of remembering how to breathe or use language could have come up with such consistently relentless dross as this film contains. The offspring of unimaginative corporate drones, The Last Jedi’s storyline was completely disjointed, and their efforts resulted in a static and thoroughly careless outcome by the measure of any cinematic standard. The film contains even more corny, plot-freezing jokes than the third and fourth Indiana Jones movies combined, and it genuinely felt like the kind of film that the clumsily destructive and inarticulate Jar Jar Binks would have come up with if Disney had offered him the director’s role. Even a child could have seen this, as did my daughter, who adores the original trilogy. She kept asking me from less than an hour into the film, “when’s it going to be over, Dad?”

Stunned by its mediocrity, I left the cinema wondering whether the film’s producers, J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy, might have approved the script after sniffing fuel emissions leaking from a fractured hyperdrive. Anybody in their right mind, I thought, must have seen this spectacle for the head-on speeder crash it was bound to become, and long before it ever reached the production phase. Then, after some fresh air on the short walk home, my own reason returned and I remembered that, from the perspective of any empire, right-mindedness, care for structure and attention to outcomes beyond any project’s immediate profit margins are all regarded as signals of weakness – signs that can’t be tolerated in the hive mind of the corporate anti-imagination at Disney Corps. Ultimately, the Hollywood entertainment complex articulates the values of the political system that it speaks for, mediates and represents, and the most basic illustration of this fact can be found in the promotional posters for countless American films featuring handsome, beautiful and always successful people wielding firearms.

Interchangeable Blandness
Hollywood has always produced terrible films but in what passes for the bulk of popular cinema today, random interchangeability is the key structural rule. Scenes, characters and dialogue can easily be switched from one production to the next without any real sense of difference or modification to the raft of static and meaningless plots being churned out. This deliberate lack of originality is striking in The Last Jedi and its methodical imitation of the drab Battlestar Galactica tv series (2004-9), which it so blatantly plagiarises. Almost every single scene in that show was filmed inside, outside, beside or on top of a shipping container, and the ones that weren’t were largely filmed in corrugated storage facilities stacked with even more shipping containers. This bland warehouse aesthetic is assimilated by The Last Jedi, in which built sets are about as visually stimulating as a visit to your local industrial estate.

Disney and Hegemony
Overwhelmingly positive reviews of the film point to the extent of collusion between Disney and the corporate press – a conspiracy of depth and power that should never be underestimated. This complicity drives the endless production of unwatchable films that has dominated mainstream American cinema since the tedious The Matrix franchise was launched in the late 1990s. It has persisted with the relentlessly dingy cycle of Lord of the Rings films and continues with the repetitive monotony of X Men, Batman and Marvel films (like Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan has been very influential in perpetuating the lifespan of this leaden genre). When circulated often and widely enough, this praise for bad films wears down audience judgment and emboldens directors like Rian Johnson to describe criticism of his own film as “violent”. (4)  This is because another key objective of neoliberal mass cinema is the erosion of the viewer’s capacity to criticise, reflect and assess – something with which it has been very successful so far.

The erasure of judgment is accompanied by the discursive framing of those who disagree with the practices and products of neoliberal entertainment as extremists and fanatics, as illustrated by Vanity Fair’s rather vicious distortion of the many expressions of disappointment that have contradicted the mainstream press’s hyperbolic praise for what is, clearly, a substandard film. Setting up a negative image of a “very specific” type of “fandom” (for that’s what, they tell us, dissenting and disappointed cinemagoers really are), the magazine identified their annoyance with The Last Jedi as an expression of a “reactionary”, “malicious” and “ticked off splinter” motivated by the “overblown hatred” that has been articulated in “hysteria-tinged” responses to the film. (5)

Unlike everybody else, who, the corporate media insists, are happy members of Disney’s Coalition of the Willingly Duped, critical viewers are, simply, what neoliberalism’s military wings term as “hostiles”: people to be feared, isolated and marginalised. Pronounced in the grimly manichean language of the War on Terror, the cultural imaginary being deployed by these publications is very telling. Their demonization of criticism is intended to frame those who object to the low standards of the mass entertainment industry as uncompromising militants – mirror-images of the kind of politically oppositional people who are neatly and silently disposed of every day with drones. While Vanity Fair certainly isn’t blowing people up from a distance, it is doing its best to vaporise unorthodox opinions like a fully-armed and operational Death Star of the mind. Portrayed, too, in the British press as “angry” and “die hard” subversives, (6)rebellious objectors are being held up on our side of the Atlantic as menacing others to the satisfied, obedient and conformist consumers who make Disney as powerful as it wants to be. Accused of circulating a collectively composed “false narrative” (7) targeting the film’s wretchedness, their criticism of its sagging and immobile plot has been portrayed in these neoliberal sources as the concerted effort of a dark international network of science fiction-following fundamentalists. And if this sounds far-fetched, bear in mind how Hollywood screenwriters and producers were recruited by the Pentagon to dream up, publicise and normalise counterinsurgency strategies within a few weeks of the September 11th attacks. (8)

 

Cinema-as-Torture
The shaming of those who might raise an objection even before they do so is a very powerful technique of intellectual and cultural control. Predictive totalitarianism and anticipatory thought control are practices that are as old as tyranny itself, and modern hegemonizing formations like Disney Corps would get nowhere without them. “If you don’t like our products,” the argument goes, “you’re a hardcore fan, you’re violent, you’re a diehard, a splitter, a hate-driven fanatic, a cultural terrorist!” and so on. Johnson’s analogization of criticism with violence is a very clear indication of the political links connecting Hollywood discourse and Disney-speak, bound as they are to the language of coercion and the broader atmosphere of political intimidation. If this seems implausible, then we only have to remember Disney’s long-running practice of blacklisting critical journalists, reviewers and even entire news outlets. This was most recently manifested in the corporation’s retaliatory barring of the Los Angeles Times from press screenings last year after the newspaper reported on its fleecing of the city of Anaheim, where the Disneyland theme park is situated, through subsidies, tax breaks and other business “incentives”. (9)
This is brainwashing in one of its softest but most insidiously effective forms, because it isn’t delivered in a torture chamber. Instead, it is channelled through the form of relentlessly bad films, corporate spokespeople and their apologists in the entertainment press. However, given that a trip to the cinema often feels like a feat of endurance these days, the subtle connections between the hard compulsion of old-fashioned sensory deprivation techniques and the gentler but no less corrosively mind-weakening methods of Wonder Woman, Batman Versus Superman or The Last Jedi become a little more apparent, fitting within the broader, consciousness-distorting patterns of the neoliberal political-entertainment complex. The categorization of those who don’t like this film as unhinged members of a disobedient and radicalized “fandom”, (10) with collective, inexplicable and pre-formed agendas of their own, as distinct from the bovine consumers who happily claim to have loved it even though they really didn’t, indicates how the subjugating discourse and its media are aimed at isolating the critical imagination.

Without Plot or Purpose
This time around, there was no repetition of the destruction of galactic super weapons showcased in previous Star Wars films. Instead, what audiences endured was a re-run of the Hindenburg disaster as something that with a degree of care and imaginative investment could have been a pleasurable spectacle started to fail before their eyes as quickly as a flaming zeppelin. Whereas the Hindenburg tragedy ended within just a couple of minutes, this painful catastrophe was drawn out for over two and a half hours. In a normal society, an evening at the cinema shouldn’t feel like a 24-hour stint in solitary confinement but we do live in an abnormal moment, and the elasticization of time by the cinema of disappointment, in which seconds stretch into minutes, and minutes into hours, would have impressed Einstein himself.

It’s now obvious why there were no plot leaks exposing even the slightest hint about the film’s storyline during the run-up to its release: there was, simply, no storyline for anyone to reveal, even if they had wanted to. To his credit, Mark Hamill warned the public months ago that The Last Jedi was an inferior effort before being forced into making a retraction by the dark forces of the Disney empire. (11)  Given this red alert, we really should have seen the calamity that was heading our way. If I had all listened to him, this bland Mickey Mouse effort would never have had a chance of depositing its neoliberal staleness into my own popcorn cup, at least. Contrived, boring and forgettable, it will be viewed with horror by cinema-goers possessing minds of their own and a basic grasp of the importance of narrative – the people who Rian Johnson regards as “violent”.

 

Notes

1.See Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Alresford: Zero Books, 2009) and Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Alresford: Zero Books, 2014).
2.Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, p.1o.
3.This filtering and watering down of the script by committee has also been recognised by the Australian film critic, Luke Buckmaster. See Luke Buckmaster, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Originality Strictly Forbidden in Directed-by-Committee Blockbuster”, Daily Review, December 15th 2017, https://dailyreview.com.au/star-wars-last-jedi-film-review-originality-strictly-forbidden-directed-committee-blockbuster/69343/ accessed 21/12/17
4.Julia Alexander, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi director addresses Twitter backlash, understands fans’ anger” Polygon, https://www.polygon.com/2017/12/19/16794986/star-wars-the-last-jedi-director-rian-johnson-backlash-twitter accessed 20/12/17
5.Joana Robinson, “Just How Seriously Should We Take This Star Wars: The Last Jedi Backlash?”, Vanity Fair, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/12/star-wars-the-last-jedi-backlash-negative-fan-reactions-rotten-tomatoes-score accessed 20/12/17
6.Stefan Kyriazis, “Star Wars 8 fan BACKLASH: ‘The Last Jedi AWFUL’ trending on Twitter”, Express, December 16th, 2017,  https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/892571/Star-Wars-8-Last-Jedi-movie-review-fan-reaction-spoilers-worst-bits, accessed 20/12/17
7.Joana Robinson, ibid.
8.See Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002), pp.15-16.
9.Daniel Miller,“Is Disney Paying its Share in Anaheim?” Los Angeles Times, September 24th, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-fi-disney-anaheim-deals/, accessed 12/1/2018. See also Sydney Ember and Brooks Barnes, “Disney Ends Ban on Los Angeles Times Amid Fierce Backlash”, The New York Times, November 7th, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/business/disney-la-times.html, accessed 12/1/2018
10.Robinson, ibid.
11.Dirk Libbey, ”What Mark Hamill Really Meant When He Criticized Luke Skywalker’s Direction”, Cinemablend, https://www.cinemablend.com/news/1671010/what-mark-hamill-really-meant-when-he-criticized-luke-skywalkers-direction, accessed 20/12/2017.

 

 

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