Note: These musings are free of clear TLJ spoilers. 🙂
So you may have heard of a little film called The Last Jedi. Came out during Christmastime, made a bit of a splash, did pretty well at the box office and all.
And by now you’ve probably heard about the backlash against the film (much of which I, a major Star Wars fan, agree with). Although critics–surprisingly–seemed to embrace it with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, many fans have been lukewarm. Some outright hate many of the choices it makes, as you can see in numerous online articles and videos and doubtless in some face-to-face discussions as well.
I’ve noticed that some folks have been countering the backlash with the retort, “Oh calm down, it’s just a movie.” (Fans of just about anything are sure familiar with that.) And I’ve been thinking over that retort, my friends, and it simply doesn’t sit well with me.
It’s true that there are many, many movies that are “just movies,” entertaining enough but with little weight behind them. And there are many movies that are nothing more than complete wastes of time and space. But the ones that really grip people’s imaginations, the ones that inspire passionate discussions and debates, the ones that are outright adored by people from all over the world and from every conceivable background…these speak to something much deeper. They’re not “just movies.”
It’s interesting to ponder why the Star Wars saga resonates so much–and why we’re also drawn to superhero films, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and similar pop culture phenomenons. They have numerous things in common: they all have heroes, often people from humble circumstances who discover a secret power or a certain destiny. They all have villains and familiar stock side characters. They tend to have quests that involve travelling to strange new places and encountering unusual sights, and often a great sacrifice must be made in order to defeat evil.
In short, they’re modern variations on stories we’ve told for thousands of years in cultures around the globe, meaningful stories that appear to be a part of our collective unconscious. Some writers have even pointed out that superheroes seem to be our evolved spin on the ancient Greek and Roman gods.
You can see modern takes on old, resonant themes in classic films too–The Wizard of Oz is a prime example. And you can see them in more than a few of our silents. In fact, one of the things that draws me so deeply to some of our silent classics is their fearless use of old archetypes, whether in intimate stories like Tol’able David and Broken Blossoms or in grand operatic dramas like Metropolis or Die Nibelungen.
In his beautiful essay on Tol’able David (one of my favorite silents) for Flicker Alley, Walter Coppedge explicitly links the film to mankind’s long heritage of mythology and fairy tales:
The stories that fill us with the deepest sense of meaning, that connect us to something beyond ourselves in time and place, are invariably those that figure some universal truth: a fruit is tasted and the garden is forfeited, a beast is loved and he turns into a prince, a maiden is kissed and she wakens into consciousness, a proud man isolates himself and terrible suffering ensues, a gentle youth defeats a fearful adversary against impressive odds. Stories of this sort are testimonies to the experience of life; primal stories repeated again and again…
With this in mind, the silence of our early films can arguably be called a strength. It allowed for greater stylization and poetry, making silents more closely linked to the broad storytelling traditions of the past than many of their talkie descendants. Which in turn, despite obviously dated elements like clothing and hairstyles, can make the best of them feel surprisingly timeless.
So if I might gently turn these thoughts back to The Last Jedi, it doesn’t surprise me that so many fans have been disappointed by it. Some of the choices it makes–in the name of “plot twists” or “taking things in a new direction”–appear to show a warped understanding or even outright abandonment of some of the very themes that we love about Star Wars–that we love about many great films–in the first place. (If you’ve seen it, the handling of a certain main character might instantly leap to mind.) Perhaps they have an instinctive sense that something about this film does not seem timeless. The touches of cynicism, the idea that maybe certain traditions are worth abandoning…how well will it age over the coming decades?
In my opinion, folks who are quick to scoff at the backlash against The Last Jedi should consider stepping back and looking at the larger picture. The vastly larger picture–large enough to be glimpsed in centuries of sculpture, paintings, stories and songs, and large enough to be represented with particular power in mankind’s newest artform, cinema.
Certain films, from the early days of “moving pictures” all the way to our current CGI extravaganzas, have the ability speak to us in important ways. Certain films deeply matter. They are not–and never will be–“just movies”.