The Movies Are Dying
Well, it’s official: the dark side has won.
No, I’m not talking about the evil Galactic Empire or its reincarnation as the First Order. I’m talking about The Walt Disney Company, the true purveyor of darkness in our world. We need not travel to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away to encounter despotism that seeks to exploit people for nothing more than shameful profit or narcissistic power plays. Alas, we need only go to Burbank, CA and view the headquarters where Supreme Leader Bob Iger gobbles up all the systems in the galaxy. Just this past week, Disney acquired major portions of 21st Century Fox (including its entire movie library, several cable networks, and direct broadcast satellite divisions in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Asia) for a cost of over $50 billion. Yet, this fact is not in itself the real reason for despair, for we can see the future of movies in Disney’s just released Star Wars: Episode VIII–The Last Jedi.
As of writing this article, The Last Jedi is expected to gross $220 million at the U.S. box office in its debut weekend. It also portends the death of movies. A thoroughly soulless entry in the grossly overrated Star Wars franchise, the Rian Johnson-directed production is only a movie in the most technical of senses. Artistic integrity and cinematic creativity are not just absent, but abolished as Disney uses its premier franchise to transform cinema into nothing more than cash-grabbing products designed by anonymous bureaucratic henchmen tasked with inoculating audiences. For Star Wars fans, think of CEO Bob Iger as akin to Emperor Palpatine, Kathleen Kennedy (the studio executive charged with making these movies) as Grand Moff Tarkin, Insert-Director’s-Name-Here as Darth Vader, and everyone else involved in the production of these asinine adventures as storm troopers.
Now, to be fair, the business-art divide in cinema is as old as the art form itself. Back in the early decades of motion pictures, the goal was clearly to make money from a technical novelty. Quickly, though, men with artistic vision seized upon this technical marvel and began to create a cinematic grammar that would usher in a new form of storytelling. The result of these pioneers, among whom was Walt Disney himself in the field of animation, was one of the most astonishing achievements in history. Art and entertainment merged, the audience for a story could transcend region and spoken language, and the infant art form grew at a geometric rate in terms of both artistic expression and production. Naturally, money was to be made in this gambit and, people being people, artistic integrity and exploration were not always respected or encouraged. However, the model Disney is pursuing in its film productions is something new and, for those who actually care about cinema, saddening.
The Last Jedi cements the bankrupt enterprise that was launched with J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens in 2015. At that time, Abrams’ film was nothing more than a remake of the original Star Wars. Amassing enthusiastic audience responses and glowing reviews, The Force Awakens did everything in its power to avoid being interesting. Fan service was the prime directive of this odyssey and it was handled deftly. The fact that our new heroine, Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), was a Mary Sue didn’t matter. Audiences and, more importantly, critics and movie professionals actually believed the canard that these movies were about something. The truth is that there is nothing intellectually or artistically honest in the latest installments in Star Wars. As much as we may all love to hate the prequels (believe me, I enjoy hating them as much as the next person), at least George Lucas was sincere in his awfulness.
As we continue the story of Rey and her Manichean opposite, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the newest saga degenerates quickly into the lie that Disney is actually interested in making movies. The fact that Rian Johnson, a truly talented filmmaker with an impressive curriculum vitae, was placed at the helm of this corporate malpractice makes the result all the more infuriating. Star Wars has never been a true representative of science-fiction, so the glaring problems of its science are hardly the culprit here. Instead, it is the fact that these characters do not stand for anything remotely worthwhile. The cosmic plight of the Resistance and First Order are meaningless noise due to Disney and its filmmaking serfs populating these stories with vacuous characters.
The introduction of Rey as this new trilogy’s protagonist was never about empowering young girls in the audience or building upon the foundations of the series’ earlier installments. No, Rey is the carefully designed product of marketing executives to solicit feel good emotions from politically correct Millennials, hubristic Gen-Xers, and self-indulgent Baby Boomers. The obviousness of this fact was much more apparent in The Force Awakens than it is in The Last Jedi, but it still remains as she continues to learn the ways of the Force under Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, who looks tired and whose acting talent has not developed over a 40 year career). Rey, an attractive twentysomething who can do everything with no explanation–be it a Jedi mind trick that she would never have known about, flying every kind of spacecraft she finds, or lightsaber battles against people who have trained while she herself has only learned of the weapon’s existence within the past fortnight–was never written, directed, or acted as anything other than a cynical move to exploit the feminist ideology while also catering to the predatory sexual instincts of lonely comic book fans. There’s a reason Rey is being played by Daisy Ridley and not Adele, which has nothing to do with the two’s acting aspirations, but rather the appetites of gamers.
In The Force Awakens, the corporate takeover of characters–usurping the most indispensable part to crafting a worthwhile story in the service of advancing revenues and ideology–was mostly limited to Rey. In The Last Jedi, the trend continues with the introduction of all the new characters. Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), who takes over as the Resistance is on the brink of annihilation, is clearly the fictional offspring of Hillary Clinton, an uncharismatic leader who nobody would actually want to lead anything, but by gum we cannot afford to be seen as unwoke, so a stiff, lifeless middle aged woman will be cast in the part. Even more egregious is the casting of Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico. The Vietnamese-American actress plays a plucky sidekick who intervenes in a crucial way late in the film and she does so well. The problem is that her casting is clearly the result of Disney wanting to gain more traction in the Asian market (where Star Wars has historically underperformed). The actors and actresses are not seen by Disney and its marketing team as artists, but merely commodities to help advance the bottom-line.
A friend of mine dissented from this analysis during a conversation last night, citing that the ethnicity of Rose’s character doesn’t matter. Yes, it does not matter, which is precisely the problem. Ethnicity, age, religion, and gender do actually matter because they are what make someone a person. When movies feature characters that can be cast with anybody who happens to meet the studio’s desired corporate goal, then what we are left with is a superficial artifice. The Last Jedi replaces the essence of storytelling with cynical marketing moves disguised as a plot. Manipulating the angst of Millennials with Kylo Ren’s temper tantrums, stroking the egos of feminists with Rey’s derrying-do, and mining the nostalgia of man-children with solipsistic mythology about the Force, the new Star Wars movies demean their audience and infantilize everyone who comes to their defense.
The critical and box office response to The Force Awakens and now The Last Jedi reveal just how dire things are for the cinema. As it gobbles up Fox, Disney’s decision to strangle exhibitors by demanding higher percentages of ticket sales and dictating the number of screens and days the film must play in another company’s venue are just the tip of the iceberg. Iger, Kennedy, and the whole slew of dark forces assembled at Disney will do everything in their power to make money, including killing the movies themselves. Between the cynical capitalization of film, the cultural and historical ignorance of filmmakers, and the gullibility of audiences and critics, the movies are in tough shape. Every dollar spent on The Last Jedi will only hasten their demise.