Reviewers as Trolls – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve seen the movie and my first reaction was lots of smiles and even some surprises despite having been exposed to spoilers from Midnight’s Edge, Doomcock and other youtube pundits. I liked it, and admitting I liked it comes with a side order of crow because I wasted some time on social media and comment threads hoping it would fail because it was part of the mess that came to a head with The Last Jedi which itself lavished running time on a side trip to casino planet Canto Bight and annoyed many viewers by indulging in at least three sets of woke-scolding. That would be substitute teacher figure Vice Admiral Holdo lecturing pilot Poe Dameron, Motor pool mechanic Rose Tico assaulting and arresting war hero Finn for suspected “desertion” from the volunteer resistance and then providing knowledge of everything other than routine protocol about where to land a space ship, and of course novice Jedi Rey lecturing Luke Skywalker about right and wrong.  In this movie, unless you have a hate-on for Rey (Daisy Ridley) you are likely to enjoy this new movie. No matter what you’re read.

As of this writing. Rottentomatoes indicates only 56% of 277 critics gave it a recommend so it has a green splat whereas 88% of two thousand one hundred and sixty-three audience members gave it a recommendation.

Contrast this with how the controversial previous entry The Last Jedi was greeted.  A whopping 91% of the 455 critics submitting reviews recommended it so it has a fresh tomato. The Two Hundred and Fourteen Thousand two hundred and seventy-nine audience members who weighed in gave it only 43 %.

Look at the number of people contributing to voting in each category, critics or audience. To me, that is whatever number of INDIVIDUALS who are either satisfied customers or not, and audience members don’t have to worry about how the thumbs up or down looks to their peers. We are way past the point where we can kid ourselves that professional or rotten-tomatoes-certified critics are an elite with special qualifications for submitting an evaluation of movies, especially when many of them are youtubers and bloggers and from any number of outlets introduced during the influx of new official reviewers intended to give more diversity to the field of critics. Few of us have the time to sort through the review samples available, let alone explore the background and preferences of each critic.

Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson might hold the code key for why such a difference between ratings for Episode VIII versus Episode IX. He has described himself as a card carrying SJW of outrage culture and celebrates the more ham-fisted messaging of The Last Jedi.  But he does not like The Rise of Skywalker. One remark rings false, “I expected this to be a well made movie I would not like but it is also a badly made movie.”  Well, objectively it is not badly made at all.  And it looks fantastic. He anticipated that Lucasfilm was going to have to acknowledge the split in the fandom that was caused by The Last Jedi and steer the tone back to a brisk pace that isn’t dwelling on messages but letting the story speak for itself. The movie has done that, so it is not regarded as a win for Mendelson’s ideology or tribe who dismissed a huge segment of the fans as “man-babies” regardless of gender (so mis-gendering many of them) for pointing out shortcomings of the Rian Johnson written and directed entry of the Disney Star Wars Trilogy.  It would not be a huge leap to suppose a similar connective tissue is shared among other critics who were among the 91% who loved The Last Jedi and the 44% who denied the recommendation to The Rise of Skywalker, leaving it with only 56% positive reviews.

One would expect the audience member score to be down for The Rise of Skywalker because there is such a grassroots campaign to bring down Disney Lucasfilm under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy who is regarded as having prioritized identity politics over all other elements of storytelling and certainly over respect for legacy characters. But looking at the film itself, clearly there has been a course correction in that regard. Yes, there is a social justice nod to “representation” of LBGTQ as advertised in interviews by director JJ Abrams, which (not a spoiler) amounts to a few seconds of the Resistance Commander D’Acy (Amanda Lawrence) referred to by fans as the “bird lady” kissing a woman in a wide shot during a crowd scene. There is nothing that felt out of its way or heavy-handed or intended to alienate the once built-in fanbase, typically Generation X and white male.  The #WithoutRespectWeReject or #StayAngry movement would like this film to fail financially so it looks bad for the record of Kathleen Kennedy and the Lucasfilm Story Group she hired to consult with creatives.  But it looks like Episode IX is mostly the work of Chris Terrio and JJ Abrams doing their best to pick up the ball and run with it.

My inclination is to withdraw from several Facebook groups and unsubscribe to youtubers who have been riding a wave of tribal griping and cheering on any rumored setbacks of this project and gleefully claiming #SoloLostMoney because of backlash from The Last Jedi and that the Star Wars brand is damaged.  It is not easy to make a movie, let alone a good one, so actively hating filmmakers for making something that wasn’t quite up to the standard is like hating a musician for not being Mozart.  I don’t know that it breaks down into politics although there are some youtubers like Jeremy of Geeks and Gamers or EVS of Comic Book Artist Pro Secrets who refer to the Peachy Orange Man in glowing terms as a way to dismiss certain media outlets.  That hurts those of us who might want to see audience feedback as being purely about an entertainment product and whether it delivers or whether it has gone astray. Rather than dismiss these voices as “toxic,” it would be more fair to say that they work the algorithm of youtube and maintain a sort of community and relationship with scribes who will contribute to their Patreon page or send in donations during long live sessions usually with other guest youtubers.  The content itself may be about the same as listening to a college cafeteria chat about movies, except that when an article is being read it is not unusual for some well established youtubers to stumble over basic words and names that are familiar to movie buffs.

People may be wanting to connect with someone who shares their frustrations over brand appropriation and some of the poor ideas the studios and creatives have to appear “aware” of issues by piggy backing intellectual property that has one traditional target demographic and try to either trash it entirely and render it uninhabitable for future directors or writers or to make it appealing to the demographic that typically recoils from its trappings and who do not buy merchandise.  Ideally, we could recognize that one person’s food is another’s poison and that any individual can click on Dave Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones while a neighbor clicks on RuPaul’s Drag Race and ne’er the two shall meet.  (Except that Dave Chappelle and Lady Gaga were both in A Star Is Born so both audiences might watch that.)

Whether someone is a paid pundit or an amateur, published in magazines or merely blogs like this one, the designation of “troll” can come from anywhere. The “respectable” columnists are often trolls with better reach or more followers than the average moviegoer.  What might be called the woke media overstepped infamously while interviewing Billy Dee Williams in promoting this new Star Wars where he returns as Lando Calrissian.  He made a remark about having soft qualities and while being the icon of the suave male he also had his feminine side.  Certain outlets ran with that and said he was “coming out as gender fluid.” This got back to him and he had to set it straight by asking, “What the hell is gender fluid?”  He had to spoon feed them a description of anima and animus from Carl Jung to describe what he meant about human nature.  He also then remarked that it was a mistake for people to focus on the humorous insinuation that in Solo: A Star Wars Story the young version of Lando played by Donald Glover has some sort of love for his droid L3-37 voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and was therefore considered “pan-sexual.” He said this likely hampered the success of the movie with initial audiences draws.

Those of us who feel a sense of relief and sanity at the impeachment of the 45th President of the United States may not be on the bandwagon of making sure that science fiction or space fantasy/Samurai/Western/Cliffhanger/operas are free of current year sociopolitical messaging or genre-busting subversion.    Some youtubers crowed over trailer images of Rey leaping supposedly through outer space or the Resistance armies on horseback in space but in context it is clear that the scenes are set in the sky over a planet. We could quibble over the oxygen content in the atmosphere and the pressure at a certain height but this is a universe where humans and Wookees come and go from any planet without environment suits and manage not to carry so much as small pox to the new worlds or take on viruses or suffocate themselves.

We can suffocate ourselves with constant exposure to decompression by youtubers and the community of disgruntled former fans or those who may feel disenfranchised by some of the new content….  streaming their content on free wifi seems like a harmless kind of radio background white noise, so to speak, except that there is a scent of unrest that may or may not influence movie studios.  Box office may be more influential.  Enough has been said about knowing a target audience and not taking anything away from them.  The bad fallout of Ghostbusters (2016) has been resolved with 2020’s promising restoration of the original iteration or universe audiences wanted to revisit. The return of Linda Hamilton to Sarah Connor in the new Terminator had great promise, as did the idea of a Terminator showing his age on his exterior and the return of Eddie Furlong as John Connor. But that was a bait and switch to steer the movie away from testosterone and more to faux images of girl power. There was over-reach. The Elizabeth Banks update of Charlie’s Angels was a presumptuous victory lap without a victory. Oceans 8 looked like a great idea because it was in continuity with the other three recent Oceans movies, following the sister of Danny Ocean and her team. When a boss of mine told me that she stayed through the end credits and there was no sign of Linus because indeed Matt Damon’s scenes had been cut after he made the mistake of saying something truthful and fair about distinguishing between grades of crimes in the MeToo era.  That was an eye roll and another title I was able to enjoy a few months later for free. It was an entertaining movie that deserved more financial success but lost my ten dollars by pandering to the herd mentality of the moment.

The Youtubers like to say #GetWokeGoBroke but it is fair to say that Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker while not regressive is also not going to alienate people who actually go to see it, unless they have an ax to grind like many professional reviewers and internet pundits.  Nobody wants to admit being wrong. When I first saw The Last Jedi I kind of accepted it.  I laughed in the right places and cried a bit and enjoyed certain scenes like Luke saying, “Nothing you can do will change my mind” and Artoo Detoo plays back the original SOS hologram from the 1977 film, “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”  I certainly can’t hate Rian Johnson for that, nor for lifting the ending of John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. and trading out Snake Plisken’s hologram for something else faking out the bad guys.  But this movie manages to have eschewed much of the baggage in between cool moments.