Over the past two weeks I’ve seen a lot of people on Facebook talking about The Last Jedi, the latest release in the Star Wars saga. It seems to be a very polarizing movie. In fact, right now, Rotten Tomatoes says that it has only a 51% audience approval rating.
One of my writer friends walked out on it, an honor he had never bestowed on any other movie. My son said he couldn’t wait for it to be over and warned me against wasting my time.
Meanwhile, some other friends have talked about how much they loved it.
So, what’s going on?
Might I make a suggestion?
First, I was there on the opening weekend when Star Wars was introduced. Most people who watched it didn’t notice that Lucas had introduced some technological breakthroughs with it. For example, the movie starts with its scroll that gives us a setup of the movie, and then some very loud spaceships scream overhead. Most people who were there thought that the visuals were what drew their attention, but the truth is that we had seen big spaceships and star fields on screen years earlier in 2001: A Space Odyssey. What we had not experienced before was the sound of those spaceships flying in from behind and zooming overhead. Star Wars introduced us to Dolby Stereo surround sound in a stunning way.
So there were breakthroughs in sound, some interesting character and artistic design, and other elements that made that first movie a hit. As a teen, I watched it several times just because I loved it. Then I started watching it in order to tear it apart and study it. It was a classic hero’s journey (Lucas had taken a class with Joseph Campbell on the hero’s journey and had actually filmed his critique of the script for that first offering), and so for a teenage boy it was powerful.
But what I want to point out is this: The movie was very male-centric. Luke, Han, Chewie, and a couple of robots join forces with only one woman to fight a bunch of baddies—who are also all men.
So us guys loved the film. I was crazy about it.
But years later, when I was asked to write my own Star Wars novel (I authored Star Wars: The Courtship of Princess Leia under the name Dave Wolverton), my first question to my editor was, “Does the universe have to be so male-centric? Can I introduce a powerful new female Jedi? Can I put in more interracial characters?” The answer was no, my publishers wanted me to stick to the main heroes of the films.
So I wasn’t able to introduce any new strong female leads, but I was able to introduce a new planet to the Star Wars universe: Dathomir, a prison planet where the Empire had dumped powerful force users for generations, a planet that had a matriarchal government run by women who were sort of Darth Vader wannabes. In fact, later, the villain Darth Maul (from Episode 1) was said to be from Dathomir.
So I got to help the franchise evolve a bit, but I didn’t get to introduce the powerful female Jedi lead that I wanted.
How was my story received? A lot of people loved the novel, but I did get one fellow who panned it, claiming that I was obviously a “rabid feminist.” I actually sat down and penned a letter to him explaining that, “Yes, I am a feminist.” I told him that I had a wife, a mother, and daughters, and I hoped to see a better world for them with a brighter future. So I started trying to justify my position in a generous tone, but the more I thought about it, the angrier I got, until I finally told him to go screw himself. However, since I had been warned never to respond to critics, I decided against sending my letter. But if by chance you are reading this, you Neanderthal woman-hater, go screw yourself!
So, I was excited when in episode 7, we got to meet Rey and Finn. Finally, the Star Wars universe was opened up to women, and to people of color. Good grief, it’s about time!
But do you see what happened? The producers switched audiences on us. Those old-timers like me who loved what is now Episode IV were sort of scooted aside. Most people don’t recognize this, and don’t even want to admit it, but we tend to identify best with characters who are our own gender, age, and ethnicity. Notice that Rotten Tomatoes has a 51% approval rating on the film. There are also 51% females in the average population. I don’t think that it is an accident that I have read notes from women who say that the latest film caused tears of joy to stream from their eyes every time they saw Rey.
Now, obviously the makers of the film are trying to catch a wide audience and the approvals don’t exactly follow gender lines, but the truth is that some old-timers are losing interest.
Now, obviously an author can develop a tale that appeals to huge audiences, but it is hard to do. In fact, while I was writing some little Star Wars novels for Scholastic Books, I was asked to help pick a book that could be pushed big in the coming year. I searched through a number of properties and found one that I believed had blockbuster potential. Using some criteria that I developed, I picked a book, notified the managing editor at Scholastic, and then we had a brainstorming session on how we could best release the novel and push it big. The novel of course was Harry Potter, and it quickly became a monster IP.
The question is, can Star Wars be engineered to appeal to a wider audience, too?
Of course it can. Many of the older, primarily male fans, are worried to see it go through some growing pains, and so we’re hearing complaints.
As for me, I recognize that the films are struggling to appeal to a new generation, and I’d love to see a film that appeals to everyone.