I don’t know anything about Pokémon, but my kids are into it, and so I’ve been checking our reviews of the new Detective Pikachu movie. The reviews from Pokémon fans are quite good. The negative reviews largely complain that it’s inaccessible to people unfamiliar with the source material. Along similar lines, one of the few consistent complaints in reviews of Avengers Endgame is that it’s a movie loaded with fan service.
This sort of criticism strikes me as odd. Why should we expect that cultural artifacts must be entirely transparent to people without knowledge of their context? So much of our cultural output is now embedded in richly imagined worlds with long and complex histories. That’s a great part of their appeal to fans. And while it makes sense for franchises to offer starting points for the unfamiliar—to provide good places to start developing familiarity—it’s unreasonable to demand that every entry play this role. Esoteric entertainment is tremendously entertaining for those initiates into its details, and it’s okay that the entertainment industry occasionally or even frequently produces esoteric entertainment. There’s so much stuff produced, after all, that you can always find something else to watch if this particular movie isn’t meant for you.
I imagine Detective Pikachu would be a good deal less fun for Pokémon fans if it spent the first twenty minutes telling you what Pokémon are or if it had an exposition dump every time a new pocket monster showed up. And Avengers: Endgame is the series finale of what amounts to a ten year, high budget TV show. Of course it’s going to be about what came before, and of course it’s not terribly worried about the needs of viewers who haven’t seen the twenty plus episodes that came before it.
Noting that a movie is inaccessible to newcomers is fine, and a movie review ought to note that. But it’s awfully weird to see reviewers say a movie is bad because it assumes prior knowledge or is targeted at people who already love the fictional universe. Our creative culture is rich enough and with enough variety that we can cater to different tastes.
Many of the most common responses rather miss the point.
My dashed off essay, “The Last Jedi Betrays the Original Trilogy and its Heroes,” has gotten, well, quite a lot of attention. It’s now the most read post I’ve ever written, and it continues to be shared like crazy on social media. While many people have said it gives voice to their own disappointment with the movie, an equal number have told me I’m out to lunch, or not understanding the movie, or stuck in my ways and so incapable of seeing what makes The Last Jedi the best since The Empire Strikes Back.
Here I want to address some of the most common rebuttals, not just because they’re common, but also because they appear to miss much of what I tried to get at in my review.
Watch out for spoilers below.
“All your questions are answered in the novels and comics.”
Yes, I am familiar with the supplemental material in the novels and comics. I’ve read all of them, in fact. But far from lessening the problems with the The Last Jedi, knowing that backstory only highlights those problems.
What the novels tell us about the state of the universe in the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens just doesn’t fit with what we see in The Last Jedi. It does fit with what we see in The Force Awakens. Episode 8 deviates not just from TFA, but from the novels, too. I’m not going to dig into the details, but what the novels tell us about the New Republic and what The Force Awakens establishes about the location of the First Order, the role of the Resistance, and damage done to the Republic by Starkiller Base, don’t support the utterly dire situation our heroes find themselves in throughout The Last Jedi.
“You’re just mad that the universe took a dark turn.”
No, I’m not upset that things are bad in the universe compared to the happy place Return of the Jedi left us, nor am I upset that, in the end, our Original Trilogy heroes didn’t win out entirely over the Empire.
That things turned dark in the decades since the Battle of Endor is just fine, and conflict’s needed for a good story. But TLJ doesn’t earn that dark turn, because the way the darker universe is presented to us doesn’t make much sense.
We’re given no real inkling of how things turned bad. They’re just bad. And they appear to be bad just so we can have another set of Rebels fight another Empire, rather than as part of a meaningful narrative that builds on what came before.
“You’re just opposed to change.”
Likewise, my objection to The Last Jedi isn’t that I think Star Wars movies should slavishly be about old characters and old themes. I’m not against change in Star Wars. I love it and want more of it.
But that change needs to be interesting, it needs to feel like Star Wars, and it needs to build on what we’ve established over eight prior movies — not to mention two TV shows, a dozen plus novels, and countless comics. Star Wars needs change, but The Last Jedi isn’t interesting change.
In fact, it’s not really change at all. That’s what so frustrating about this particular response. The Last Jedi begins with the Rebellion (sorry, Resistance) fleeing its last base as the Empire (sorry, First Order) closes in. It ends with the Resistance in tatters, the Empire ascendant, and with a young Jedi just learning the way as the galaxy’s last, best hope. Along the way we get a Jedi master in isolation teaching a young force users from a backwater desert world about the ways of the Force, and we get a trench battle against Imperial (sorry, First Order) walkers.
The Last Jedi is change in the sense that it ignores the state of the universe it was handed by The Force Awakens and the novels, particularly the Aftermath trilogy and Bloodline. But it’s not nearly enough change because it ignores the state of the universe in order to unthinkingly return us to exactly what we’ve already seen, and without rhyme or reason.
“Aren’t these really problems with The Force Awakens?”
No, they’re not. Here’s why. The Force Awakens is a movie about setup. It’s the start of something new, and so its job is to introduce us to the world and its characters, not to explain everything and resolve all mysteries. TFA does a good job with that.
Yes, its opening crawl is confusing. We don’t quite understand who the First Order are, or how Leia’s Resistance is related to the Republic. The crawl should’ve been revised, because the answers are both simple and make for a pretty cool setup. In short, the First Order is an Imperial remnant, way out in the fringes of the galaxy. The Republic knows about them, but doesn’t consider them a threat, which is why they’re not sending their military to interfere. Leia’s convinced the First Order does pose a significant threat, so she’s setup the Resistance to keep an eye on them. (In the novels and comics, we learn that there’s actually a non-aggression treaty between the two sides.)
That all works. It makes sense that there’d be Imperial remnants. It makes sense that Leia, given what she went through in the Original Trilogy, would consider them a threat. It makes sense that the Republic, tired of war, would want to believe they can safely be ignored.
The Force Awakens has, in other words, good and interesting world-building. And the mysteries it sets up are themselves good and interesting. The Last Jedi discards all that without earning it from a narrative standpoint. The Republic was rocked, yes, by the loss of its capital and senate at Hosnian Prime in the Starkiller attack. But it beggars belief that such an attack would mean the galaxy is now without any military force capable of fighting back against what looks to be a not-too-large First Order fleet. We’re told in TLJ that the Resistance is all that’s left. Why? How? Rian Johnson doesn’t care.
“You’re just racist and sexist, and that’s why you don’t like the movie.”
I'm trying to think of a reason for not liking The Last Jedi that's not racism, sexism, or severe discomfort with seeing older women in charge and I'm having a hard time, peeps
Through sheer storytelling laziness, it tells us that nothing that came before mattered.
The Last Jedi is the most disappointing Star Wars movie since Attack of the Clones. I don’t believe I’m overstating that. It’s a movie that, through its plot developments and characterization, makes the whole of the Star Wars saga less interesting and less compelling.
Its plotting undermined the characters. What was accomplished by Luke, Leia, and Han in the Original Trilogy? In light of The Last Jedi, they basically failed. The ending of Return of the Jedi is moot. We don’t know why it’s moot. We don’t know why the Rebellion’s victory turned out to be, well, nothing at all. Episode VIII doesn’t bother to tell us, because it just doesn’t care.
Instead, The Last Jedi says, “Return of the Jedi never happened. Our characters failed. The Empire still lives, somehow, though we’ve changed the names. Everything’s as dire as it was after Empire Strikes Back, without explanation, and without earning it. We simply couldn’t come up with a new story, so we inexplicably reset the universe to repeat the same story we’ve already done, with a handful of new characters.”
Why did the Rebellion fail?
Why did any of the Original Trilogy matter?
That the Rebellion failed could be an interesting story. That our characters ultimately failed could be an interesting story. But Episodes VII and VIII don’t concern themselves with that. They just want to have another Empire and another Rebellion, because that’s as ambitious as they want to be. And in doing so, without telling the story of how we got there, they’ve sapped the Original Trilogy of its meaning, and made the fight our heroes fought through three movies pointless.
Luke’s a loser. Han’s a loser. Leia’s a loser. There’s your characterization. But, hey, we got some porgs, Luke can make a hologram across planets, and Snoke’s is a generic bad guy in a bathrobe.
Let’s talk about Snoke. Here’s a guy who somehow built a war machine that toppled the New Republic, and built it out of at best a fragment of a bit of ships remaining from the Empire, which could be a great story and a great villain. But The Last Jedi doesn’t care about that. Snoke’s just, well, a plot point.
One might object that Episodes VII and VIII neededn’t answer all such questions. Except that these questions are central to what these movies are about. They’re the why that gives purpose to what we’re seeing, and that give purpose to the sacrifices the characters make.
For instance, they play up the conflict in Kylo Ren. Great. That’s important, and very Star Wars. But then they reduce his fall to Luke saying, “Snoke got to him,” and then a single scene of Luke trying to kill him. But not knowing anything about Snoke, we have no appreciation for what it means that Snoke got to him, or why Ren turned from Han and Leia’s son to someone who would murder both. He’s just bad because — handwave — some random dude made him bad?
In other words, our characters lack motivations for their actions, and so the actions are without much emotional weight.
The Force Awakens skirted this, because it was setup. We assumed we’d then learn why they were doing the things they were doing. The Last Jedi said, “Nope, we’re not going to bother with that.”
That’s why this movie was nothing like Empire, even though so many of the inexplicably glowing reviews want you to think it is. Empire was about building characters. It was about the “I am your father” realization that gave Vader so much more weight, and made everything matter in a much deeper way. That drove the characterization, making it all richer.
The Last Jedi just had characters fight. It had Luke be sad because he screwed up, somehow, but we don’t know how, because we don’t know who or what Snoke was and why he was so powerful. It had Leia lead a dwindling Resistance, but we don’t know why she’s doing that, because we don’t know why it matters what the First Order’s up to, because the universe is suddenly reset to a pre-Return of the Jedi order so there’s something to do? We’re just told the Resistance is the last line of defense, and so it matters, but we’re not shown that. The movie is all tell, not show.
The Last Jedi fakes its “emotional” weight because it has characters we love pop up, and it has characters we love in danger or dying. But why they’re doing any of that is just ignored.
It’s a remarkably lazy movie, and arguably the worst of the whole saga. The Prequels were bad, yes, but they left the Original Trilogy intact. The Last Jedi betrays the legacy of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. It cheapens the most inspiring rebellion in film history, and turns its heroes into failures. For shame.
Update: Responding to Criticism
This essay has received a lot of attention. Which is great, especially when I hear from people who say it articulates their own reaction to The Last Jedi. At the same time, it’s received a lot of criticism, much of it good and thoughtful. In light of that, I’ve written a follow-up essay responding to some of the most common rebuttals. Here it is:
This by-the-numbers, visually dull movie doesn’t deserve the praise it received.
Ninety-two percent of reviewers, according to Rotten Tomatoes, liked Wonder Woman — which just shows the limits of the site’s methodology. “Like” is such a milquetoast evaluation. A shrug of “Yeah, I thought it was decent enough” counts equally with “This was a genre defining cinematic breakthrough.” Lukewarm is indistinguishable from ecstasy.
After watching Wonder Woman, I have to think its 92% is of the lukewarm variety. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not a good one, either. And its not-badness is perhaps inflated by the fact that it follows on two much less critically liked DC films.
Call it the Sigh of Relief method of movie reviewing. When expectations are low, or at least worry high, a movie that’s not bad gets reviewed as if it’s really good, because it allayed the fears of reviewers. After Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, expectations were low. (Though the latter film received far more negativity than it deserved.)
Still, Wonder Woman’s sigh of relief is earned. Nothing stands out as aggressively bad, and there are quite a few things to like. Wonder Woman herself is super charismatic. Gal Gadot delivers an effortless performance. She’s not asked to do much, but she plays the role with enormous charisma. Godot is a far better Wonder Woman than Ben Affleck is Batman or Henry Cavill is Superman. (I say this as someone relatively unfamiliar with the source material, so it’s possible she misses in that regard, but within the context of the DC movies, she works well.)
Yet, beyond Gadot’s character, Wonder Woman feels entirely disposable. I liked that the movie was self-contained, instead of taking the Marvel strategy of every movie just being a cold open for the next, but story’s thin, the villains remarkably boring, and, most tragically for a DC movie, the visuals dull.
There’s not a single interesting visual filmmaking moment in Wonder Woman. The whole thing lacks any sense of style. Say what you will about Snyder, but he has an eye for gorgeous shots. Patty Jenkins does not. Wonder Woman looks more like a Marvel movie with heavier color grading than it does a DC movie as Snyder established them.
Like is so often the case with comic book films, if Wonder Woman hadn’t been called “Wonder Woman,” but featured a super hero with all the same traits but a different name, and without the build-in fan base, it would’ve received at best low to middling reviews. There were good moments, sure, but it’s certainly not a movie I’d ever feel like watching again.
It does feature the best theme of any superhero to date, though.
We’re on our way to four(!) Avatar sequels, which is probably the same as number of people excited about Avatar sequels.
It’s pretty striking, really, how quickly Avatar vanished from the public consciousness. The movie came out at the end of 2009, and in the years since, we’ve seen really no lasting attempts to keep the universe alive. There aren’t any Avatar toys, novels, or comics being sold. No video game franchise. People don’t wear Avatar t-shirts, or reference it except in occasional satire. Nobody’s wondering what the Avatar universe holds, or about the backstories of its characters. It was a pretty 3D movie, but otherwise entirely forgettable. And “forgotten” is exactly what happened to it, except in the mind of James Cameron and as trivia about top box office receipts.
Avatar’s disappearance happened so fast, with so little cultural impact, that I got to wondering whether any other movie comes close.
The answer is “No.” Avatar looks rather unique in this regard. To figure it out, I went to Box Office Mojo’s list of all time top “Sci-Fi — Adventure” movies, and sorted it by estimated ticket sold. Avatar sits at #5. People bought 97,000,000 tickets to see it. Here’s what its company in the Top 20 looks like, skipping movies that are sequels to films already in the list, and so piggybacking on their parent’s cultural impact.
Back to the Future
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
2001: A Space Oddessy
Guardians of the Galaxy
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Star Wars, of course, has more cultural influence than any movie ever made. The others either continue to live in public consciousness, are considered eminently rewatchable classics, or have inspired entire genres. The only that might not fit this are the last two. Guardians of the Galaxy is part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so it’s impossible to judge what its impact would’ve been without membership in the MCU. (My bet, however, is that without the MCU tie-in, it wouldn’t have cracked the Top 20 in the first place.) Star Trek: The Motion Picture itself is something of a forgotten film, but it kicked off the Star Trek movie franchise, and there’s no doubting the importance of that. Avatar, which falls between E.T. and Jurassic Park in box office receipts, stands alone as leaving not a ripple.
And it’s not like Cameron has no experience making culturally influential films. He gave us Aliens, the Terminator movies, and Titanic. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
The easy answer is that Avatar was just a spectacle. People didn’t see it for its characters, story, or worldbuilding. They saw it because it was the first major 3D movie to make full use of that medium. But still, really popular scifi stuff tends to take on a life of its own. That’s the nature of scifi fandom. The fans want to live in the world, explore it more, expand upon it. Or, at the very least, reference it incessantly. And yet, nothing.
Now 3D’s been done. We’ve all seen Avatar. Four more Avatars will be nothing more than four more Avatars, without the breakthrough to drive ticket sales. Still, the movie’s absence from pop culture remains interesting. It’s not even parodied. To make something so big and yet so forgettable is, itself, a rather remarkable achievement.
Comparing what DC’s doing with their cinematic universe to what Marvel’s up to isn’t just about critics’ reviews or quality of scripts. Marvel has the leg up, at least right now, on both accounts. But there’s a more interesting divide, one that shows a fundamentally different approach to how a comic should make the transition to screen.
Let’s start with DC. Their style, so vivid in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, goes back to Zack Snyder’s first comic book adaptation, 300, and his first DC adaptation, Watchmen. Say what you will about their other features, but both are visually extraordinary and, more important to the central difference between DC and Marvel, both look like comic books. This isn’t just obsessive use of comic panels in composing shots, though that’s part. It’s that these movies, wherever they’re set, aren’t our world. They happen in one of the weird places that exist somewhere else. The landscape isn’t ours, nor the architecture. The colors are “wrong.” The sounds, too. These movies take the visual language of their source material and make it move.
DC continued this with Snyder’s first two movies formally in the new cinematic universe. Both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman have heavy color grading, stark lighting, conspicuously framed shots, and so on. The latter movie in particular feels often artificial, not in a negative sense (though some might argue it is a negative), but in the way that pencil and ink are artificial, that the art of someone like Jae Lee is artificial compared to the photographic style of Alex Ross or Timothy Bradstreet. The movie is explicitly designed to look like another world. It’s explicitly designed to look like a Batman comic book.
We might summarize DC’s approach as bringing comic books to the screen. The trailers for Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad look like it’s an approach they’re sticking with.
Marvel goes in the opposite direction. The Marvel Studios movies are shot to look like our world. In fact, they’re shot without much of a recognizable visual style, and they tend to attach directors not known for visual style, as good as they might be in other ways. Setting aside the few films that explicitly take place elsewhere (Guardians of the Galaxy and the Thor movies), if you pulled the superheroes and the scifi tech out any given shot, you’d likely have no way of knowing you were watching a genre movie.
So if DC’s cinematic universe is intended to look like comic panels brought to life, Marvel’s style is showing what our world would look like if it had superheroes in it.
This of course fits each publisher. Marvel’s thing, going back to Stan Lee, is to present its heroes as regular people with super powers. DC’s characters — at least the most famous ones with the maybe exception of Batman — are instead creatures of myth, demigods not at all like mortal men.
This divide means the two universes are keyed to telling different sorts of stories, though I think Marvel’s approach better allows for the integration of cosmic level characters than DC’s allows for street level, personal stuff. Regardless, it’ll be fun to see how much this style continuity continues.
Alexander Freed wrote the best Star Wars novel to date and his style fits perfectly what we hope Rogue One will be.
Reshoots have fans worried.
Every movie schedules reshoots, but scuttlebutt is that Rogue One’s getting more than most, and that they’re happening because Disney wants more humor. That they want a “lighter” story and jokier dialog. Disney’s denied this, but studios always deny fans’ fears, right?
Freed’s not an established name in Star Wars books. He’s a video game and comics guy. But his one novel, Star Wars: Battlefront: Twilight Company, is the best in the new Star Wars cannon. (It’s the only tie-in novel to make BuzzFeed’s list of the “24 Best Science Fiction Books of 2015.”) In fact, Twilight Company is quite likely the best written novel to bear the Star Wars name, and certainly the one that makes the best case for being just a good novel, even if you filed off all the Star Wars bits.
It’s also the most distinctive in tone — and that tone is what bodes well for Rogue One the movie. Disney had a ton of choices for the novelization. They could’ve turned to one of their regulars, like Alan Dean Foster. They could’ve chosen someone of bland competence, like Troy Denning. But they went with a guy who has only a single novel under his belt.
The thing that sents Twilight Company apart isn’t just the quality of its prose and dialog, though both are excellent. What sets it apart is its grown-up psychology, in contrast to most Star Wars novels, which tend to go for a style of what I’ll call “adolescent” psychology.
It’s important to note that this distinction isn’t about the presence of violence or “grittiness.” You could tell a psychologically adult light adventure story and a psychologically adolescent war story. Twilight Company is, of course, about war, but that’s not what makes it so good.
The common feature of the adolescent style is that characters act without feeling the weight of their situations. They fret, yes, and get angsty, but they maintain a sort of archetypal detachment. Han is always wisecracking Han, no matter what’s happening. The young lovers in Star Wars: Lost Stars swoon for each other because that’s what young lovers are supposed to do, even when their world is falling apart. And all of it happens in a way that meets the expectations of how children and tweens and teenagers believe adults act and think instead of the way adults actually act and think.
Bloodline tells Leia’s story, as she slouches through a dull political career suddenly made livelier by uncovered secrets, unexpected betrayal, and a fall from grace. But the whole thing has a typically juvenile feel, like this is how an unworldly teenager thinks politics works or spying missions play out or adults talk to each other. There’s a lack of psychological plausibility, a lack of realistic emotional expression, and a lack of meaningful danger.
This tone pervades most Star Wars novels. They rarely feel real — and in a way that has nothing to do with aliens and spaceships and the Force.
Twilight Company feels real. It feels like actual people with psychological depth, facing situations that make them uncomfortable or put them in difficult positions, and then responding as adults genuinely would. Their motives make sense, their reactions to events and to each other make sense. The characters of Twilight Company are, dare I say it, deep.
What does this mean for Rogue One? Like I said above, Lucasfilm didn’t have to choose Freed to write the novel. He wasn’t an obvious pick. So that decision, coupled with how much Twilight Company (again, his only published novel to date) stands out from the rest, makes me think that his announced tie to Rogue One is because Rogue One will match Alexander Freed.
If that’s the case, then we’ll get a movie that also stands out, and for all the right reasons.
I was reading news about the casting of the new Han Solo movie and it struck me. As of December last year, we’ve fully entered an era of Star Wars abundance. An original Star Wars movies every year. Star Wars on television. Books and comics advancing the canon.
That’s good. Wonderful. We’re not just staring down the firehose new Star Wars, but what we’re getting is good. Lucas is out of the picture and the franchise is in the hands of people who grew up with it, love it, and — here’s where Lucas stumbled — understand why we all love it.
But I’ve got three kids, of ages where they’re just dipping their toes into what I hope will be a lifelong love affair with the franchise, and something about this abundance — irrationally perhaps — makes me a little sad. Because abundance means their relationship with Star Wars, assuming they get hooked, will be in important ways different from my own. Part of the magic of those movies, especially before the still-birthed prequels, was their scarcity. You got three films. That was it, really. (Because I’m not counting the inconsistent, high-gloss fan fiction of the Expanded Universe.)
It’s similar to how unlimited streaming changes the relationship to music. I grew up saving my allowance or tiny, part-time paychecks for an album, then buying it, and then listening to it over and over and over, because it’s what I had. This created a relationship to the music, a permanence of memory maybe, that won’t happen when you can listen to anything any time at zero marginal cost, and so wander more.
Part of my Star Wars experience is long term and frequent immersion in the original trilogy. Learning it inside and out. Memorizing it, basically. With a new movie every year, one or more TV shows, etc., that won’t happen. Which, even though the abundance is wonderful, also makes me a little sad. Will they have every line of every movie memorized? Of course not. Why would they?
Now is the best time ever to be a Star Wars fan. No doubt. But it’s a different kind of fandom, too. Abundance is awesome. But it’s not without effects. In the case of Star Wars, look with bittersweet anticipation on a future where my kids have so much of it that no single movie is a special and central as those original three were for me.
They’re terrible movies. Let’s get that out of the way. But watching The Force Awakens again, and then again the divine Original Trilogy, I got this weird and unsettling flash of appreciation for something Lucas had done in those stillbirths of CGI and suffering actors and dialog usually confined to airport novels written by ex-advertising executives. He built a universe and showed it to us.
Of course, he’d already done a bit of that with the Originals. We had an Empire and its Rebels. We had spectacular aliens and even more spectacular spaceships. But what we saw of it was only so much as needed to give the characters somewhere to be. Very little came off as existing without them. Luke’s farm sits like as movie set in the middle of nowhere. Alderaan is just a blue sphere until it’s not. Hoth’s a Rebel base and nothing else, and Dagobah is Yoda’s hut and a murky pond.
Not that we don’t get tastes. Tatooine in Episode IV has Jawas, a pass through Mos Eisley, and that wonderful cantina. Cloud City in Episode V features hallways with doors behind which people presumably live and earn a living. Jabba’s palace and Endor in Episode VI show denizens up to things unrelated to the struggle for a new Republic.
But those are small. Just tastes. The prequels gave us the whole meal. Planets and citizens. Civilizations from screen corner to screen corner. We knew about this stuff, some of it, going in, because we could imagine it in the Originals’ lacuna and had been told about it in novels and comics and games. Still, the prequels widened, radically, the scope of Star Wars.
That’s what I missed from The Force Awakens. It’s a great movie, a return to form, a revitalization and a demonstration of faith on Disney’s part that they get it, that they’re fans, too. But it’s a return to form, too, in narrowing that scope. Again we’re in a universe of isolated sets, of points of light in otherwise wilderness. Even Maz’s castle seems to exist without neighbors. There are no cities in The Force Awakens, save for a single shot, and only two villages, if we can call Niima Outpost that, and if we count Lor’s tiny settlement, which we only witness dying and never living. The wide angles of the prequels have become tight.
Perhaps this was intentional, meant to remind of us A New Hope, as so much else does, or to keep us focus on fresh faces as a way to establish them in our consciousness the way Luke and Leia and Han are. The fresh worlds will come. But after the expanse of the prequels and then the Clone Wars TV show, The Force Awakens feels a little small.
Credulity, it seems, is the quintessential American virtue. Value is found not in closely examining claims to discover their relationship to truth but, instead, by expressing a willingness to abandon inquiry in favor of hope. Would claim X, if true, make the world a better place? If so, we should act as if it is true, regardless of evidence or consequences. We can solve the energy crisis, for instance, if we believe strongly enough in green technologies and never mind the cost. We can banish homelessness by giving those without shelter the hope of a better tomorrow, regardless of the underlying causes of their plight. We can put an end to hate and bigotry by admonishing those who do not respect all beliefs. We can justify a lifetime of suffering if only we hold fast to the idea of posthumous paradise.
Religion, of course, is the exemplar of this culture of credulity. Faith is, at its core, wish fullfilment. I want there to be an omnibenevolent God who loves me so, therefore, there is an omnibenevolent God who loves me. I desire good to be rewarded and evil punished so, therefore, an afterlive exists designed to do just that. The rejection of religious faith, thus, is popularly condemned as the broader rejection of hope. The atheist must be bitter and suffering as a result of his choice — or perhaps his choice came about because of his bitterness and suffering. Regardless, the atheist is the subject of pitty, if not outright scorn, because he has opted to turn away from a set of beliefs that are so nice. Why, society asks, would any person want to undermine such an optimistic world view?
This condemnation of atheism is socially acceptable in a way that would seem immediately suspect if directed at a given religious sect. A movie or television show that portrayed a Jewish character as brought low by his religion, only to find happiness by embracing Christ, would find itself labeled religious bigotry, not a messenger of embraceable platitudes. A clear example of the banality of anti-atheist sentiment can be seen in the recent blockbuster film, “I Am Legend.”
Staring Will Smith, the movie tells the story of a scientist, Robert Neville, left alone by, and immune to, a global plague that turns many of its victims into zombie-like vampires. By day, he explores an abandoned New York City, hunting the vampires and bringing them back to his lab to experiment for a cure. By night, he hides in his home, which he has retrofitted into an armored bunker, hoping to live to see the next day. Whether Neville was an atheist before the infection is never explicitly told, though there is a scene at the beginning where he prays with his family. We can assume, therefore, that he was, at one time, a man of faith, but lost his belief as a result of the evils he saw around him. This is typical of Hollywood’s view of atheists: they only ever arrive at their atheism through a traumatic severing of faith. Religion is the default human condition and to reject it must be the result of anger against the heavenly father. Instead of atheism being a rational choice, one arrived at by weighing argument and evidence, it is instead analogous to the teenager screaming “You’re not my dad!” at her offending parent and slamming her bedroom door. Atheism comes about through emotional rebellion, not intellectual application. As such, it is less a philosophy than a symptom of a curable disease. Why is the atheist so angry? If we can alleviate that anger, he will gladly return to the fold.
Near the end of the film, Neville meets a woman and a young boy. They are traveling to a safe zone somewhere in New England. Neville, who has information that these protected areas, while planned, never materialized, questions the woman on how she knows of its existence. “God told me,” she said. Neville rejects this. Returning to the theme of atheism as anger, he tells the woman that there is no God. Would God have allowed this plague? No, Neville says. There must not be a God, because the disease is wholly the work of man. The woman isn’t put off by any of this. She knows God is out there and that he’s the one who told her about the safe zone. When we first see her, she’s driving a car with a cross hanging from the rearview mirror.
The climax comes when the three are cornered by the vampires in Neville’s lab. Neville discovers that his latest attempt at a cure, tested on a vampire he has imprisoned in the spot they’re now hiding, has worked. He can fix the world’s greatest ill. For reasons that make little practical sense, however, he decides that he must hand the cure off to the woman and sacrifice himself to protect her and the boy. He comes to this odd conclusion through a clumsy recovery of faith. His daughter, it seems, was fond of clasping her tiny hands into the shape of a butterfly, a fact he remembers as he notices first a butterfly tattoo on the neck of the vampire he’s captured and, second, the cracks in the glass separating him from the horde of undead, cracks which form, yes, a butterfly. These coincidences convince him that there really is a god and that the woman’s claim to divine knowledge is true. Neville hands her the cure, locks her safely away, and blows himself up. He’s recovered from his unfortunate atheism but must still pay the price for rejecting God. The film concludes with the woman and boy finding the promised safe zone and handing Neville’s cure to the proper authorities.
What are we to make of this heavy handed moralizing? The message in “I Am Legend” is clear: belief in God makes even the extraordinary possible. To reject belief in God, then, is to reject the possibility of the extraordinary. What a sad and hopeless belief atheism must, therefore, be. Of course, had Neville been Jewish and the woman more overtly Christian, anti-defamation leagues everywhere would have called for the film’s boycott. That isn’t the case when the target of righteous condemnation is atheism. All good, caring, and loving people necessarily have faith in a good, caring, and loving creator. It is only the cynics and the miserable who would reject such a beautiful dream.