I don’t want to think about Star Wars anymore, but I can’t help it. The Disney monolith is so all encompassing, and the cultural legacy of Star Wars so ingrained, that the discourse and thinking about the discourse is all but inescapable. At least when you’re as online as myself, you can’t avoid thinking about it, and in turn, you can’t avoid having opinions about it. If nothing else, the Empire of Mouse is succeeding in it’s totalizing control of the mass psyche. Star Wars it is. Can’t help it. If I choose not to decide, I still have made a choice.
There has been much sturm and drang about the last release, the conclusion of a trilogy of trilogies that almost certainly has not in any sense actually concluded. There’s too much money to be made. Yet for the time being this is our ending, and the end of this era in the franchise life-cycle. And people are pissed. While the nu-trilogy has been controversial with fandom since day one, the last film seems to have attracted near universal criticism from everybody who, like me, is enough of a psuedointellectual snob to bother having opinions about Star Wars movies. The Force Awakens may have been fine-to-disappointing, Last Jedi was divisive, Rise of Skywalker is just plain bad.
I saw it. I didn’t plan to but then I was encouraged to write this piece and I figured I should watch it, for the sake of completeness. The experience was tedious and headache inducing, the cinematic equivalent of a grade schooler telling you a story: AND THEN, AND THEN, AND THEN, but without a child’s earnest charm or boundless imagination. A technical criticism of each film is really outside the point of this piece, but suffice it to say that JJ Abrams is essentially an above-average street magician. Keep drawing your attention here and there with spectacle and contrived mystery, too busy to notice the slight of hand. Here the trick is too big, and performed under too much scrutiny, to hold together, and Abram’s utter lack of substance is put on full display. It’s a bad movie.
But even worse than a bad movie, it’s a movie that failed to meet expectations. This is where we start to hit the heart of the problem with the Star Wars nu-trilogy. In the decades since the twined emergence of geek culture and the internet, we’ve seen today’s culture industry mega-corporations learn to adopt and expertly manipulate fandoms. To exert fine control over the desires and expectations of the cults that form around pop culture in the void created by capitalism’s secular alienation. To mine them for their desired tidbits (ships, characters, themes, fanservice) then apply those tidbits to tease and motivate the fandom into frothing enthusiasm, to colonize their minds like B-Movie alien invaders, and deploy them as a motivated army of word of mouth advertisers to legitimize the product as a pop culture phenomenon: A socially important pseudoevent, which in turn will bring in the vast masses of mainstream “normie” audiences for whom the final product is actually created and intended.
The commodification of fandom is a separate issue for which we don’t have time or space, as is the bizarre and complex phenomena of the Star Wars fandom itself. A community so rife with obscure factional debate and neurotic hostility that it invites comparison to a Maoist Revolutionary Cell. What’s key here is that the existence of dedicated fandoms for 40 year old media properties, the perpetual re-iteration of those properties generations later, and the general creative bankruptcy of film in our era are all symptomatic of a deeper fundamental trend. Rise of Skywalker was, in any artistic or creative sense at least, always doomed to fail.
There is a black hole at the heart of the new Star Wars trilogy. A void of meaning. What we have here are not Star Wars films, but films about Star Wars. Reference movies. All remakes, sequels, homages and rip-offs exist in some kind of dialogue with their predecessors. It is unavoidable. But this intra-meta-textual discourse defines the entire existence of the nu-trilogy. All external elements are mere holograms, cargo-cult replications of what was already featured in the original films or created in direct response, contained within the meta-text.
Movies today are made by movie nerds, the most exemplary of which might be someone like Quentin Tarantino. They are movies made by people who’s whole lives is movies, responding to movies, making movies about movies. This does not preclude a film, or any work, from having substance and ideas outside of this, but it is an increasingly pervasive result of the dominance of nerd culture and liberal capitalism’s trend towards hyper-specialization and narrow expertise in labour, and individualized introspection in philosophy and morality.
In a striking scene in The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s noble if failed attempt to avoid the worst pitfalls of the Disney model, series heroin Rey confronts a series of mirrors, each reflecting herself, looking at herself, looking at herself, onward into infinity in every direction. This image captures precisely the failure of the nu-trilogy writ-large: Endless self-referentiality. Star Wars as a franchise is paradoxically bigger than itself. This is the black-hole at the heart of star wars, a psychic mass so dense that no meaning or novelty escapes it’s gravitational pull, that all stories, characters and iconography are pulled across an event horizon that strips them of all meaning and context, rendering them inert. Dead.
This is the end result of the pervasive meta-textual discourse. It is unsustainable, and leads to the collapse of all meaning and substance in art, as it becomes about nothing but itself, a closed loop of reference. Any new work that can emerge in this environment will, given sufficient popularity to upend our cultural stagnancy, be pulled into this same black hole, and suffer the same bizarre annihilation and zombification. To lucrative to die, too popular to live. All that decontextualized iconography becomes it’s sole essence, and thus must be preserved in it’s mutated deathless state.
Star Wars is only the most visible phenomenon. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe we see five decades of comic books and cartoons rendered into the same fate. Disney’s own endless rehashing of it’s animated classics, each one a crystallized example of this pointless closed loop. Consider the live action Beauty and the Beast. A story that has been told and retold in countless creative and even surreal iterations, but in it’s most recent form, exists only as a clickbait pop-feminist criticism and correction of itself. Like a patch or expansion for a videogame, useless and incomprehensible without it’s source product. Even the aforementioned Last Jedi, in all it’s attempts to subvert expectations and invert themes, cannot escape the vast gravity well of the black hole: All it’s attempts remain confined to the realm of response to, not only the original films, but the new trilogy of which it is the middle component. You can’t even get to the end of a story without it imploding in self-consciousness.
Popular fiction in the english speaking world finds itself in a grave and bleak moment. This inescapable black hole of inward self-referentiality mirrors the inescapable mass of the cultural achievements of the Baby Boom generation, the world they built now a crumbling mausoleum in which we all find ourselves trapped. An edifice held in too much reverence to be defaced or destroyed, so intimidating in it’s dominance as to trick us into thinking we can achieve nothing greater than the honor of polishing it’s marble, repairing it’s facades and going on at length about what it all means. Just as I have here, likewise trapped in the orbit of the black hole, circling the cosmic drain with everybody else.