Bombshell (2019) versus The Rise of Skywalker (2019)


In Jay Roach’s excellent film Bombshell, Kayla Pospisil, a young evangelical Christian who has just started a job as an intern at Fox News, manages to arrange a private meeting with Fox Chairman and CEO Rogers Ailes. Pospisil, who’s played by the tall, beautiful Margot Robbie, not only knows she has the right “look” to get on the air, she understands that your shelf life as a blond “bombshell” at Fox News doesn’t last very long past your thirtieth birthday. Rogers Ailes, played by veteran character actor John Lithgow, is old, fat, and uses a walker to get around. Yet, as Pospisil learns, that doesn’t mean he’s not perpetually horny for leggy blonds. The interview starts off well. Then Aisles orders Pospisil to lift up her skirt. A sheltered Christian girl, she’s mortified by his request, and yet, an as ambitious wannabe news anchor, she also realizes that her job requires her to be an actor as well as a journalist. Lifting your skirt up an inch or two, is it really that much different from sending head shots before an audition? Ailes, however, a sick, evil old man, is more interested in power and domination than sex. “Higher,” he says. “Come on, higher,” he adds, continuing to goad her until he finally gets what he wants and she lifts her skirt up so high she reveals the outlines of her vagina under her panties.

While you’ll probably never see anybody as ridiculously hot as Margot Robbie in the sexually repressed Star Wars franchise, The Rise of Skywalker does feature a very similar confrontation between an innocent young woman and a sick, evil old man. Rey, the female Luke Skywalker played by the British actress Daisy Ridley, has traveled to the planet Exegol, the legendary headquarters of the Sith, where she meets the Emperor Palpatine, the Hitler of the original series and the early 2000s prequels. Palpatine, a man we thought was long dead, has not only resurrected himself, he reveals himself to be Rey’s grandfather. The scene, which is obviously meant to recall the iconic scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker felt upon learning that Darth Vader was his father, should be horrifying. Palpatine wants a lot more than to get his dick sucked by a hot young blond. He wants to inhabit Rey’s body, to take over her mortal coil before he goes on reign terror on the universe the likes of which Darth Vader himself never imagined. Yet the scene falls flat. Rey has little of the vulnerability of the young Luke Skywalker. What’s more, it makes no sense. If Palpatine could not only create the entire First Order from scratch but resurrect himself from the dead, why does he even need Rey? Why wouldn’t he simply recreate himself as a buff 23-year-old, grab the nearest light saber, jump into a space ship and precede to conduct the “Palpatine’s Back”  tour of mass destruction? It’s not that Palpatine, like Tennyson’s St. Simeon Stylites, asked the gods for eternal life but forgot to ask them for eternal youth. He is a god.

Back in 1977, when I was eleven years old, and Roger Ailes was still a thirty-seven-year-old Republican Party operative, the United States of America found itself in a difficult situation. Long accustomed to thinking of themselves as the “good guys,” Americans were reluctantly trying to face up to the fact that their government had just conducted a genocidal war against the people of Vietnam. As large and militant as the anti-war movement had been, it had been more about the draft than about any serious attempt to dismantle the American Empire. The United States military had lost its discipline in Vietnam. There had been a mutiny about the USS Kitty Hawk, the biggest and most powerful capital ship in the United States Navy, and despite success in Chile, the CIA had been unable to remove the communist government in Cuba. Yet there was never any real possibility that the Soviet Union would overtake the United States as the most powerful nation on earth. Indeed, the communist block was split. China had already taken the first steps back to restoring capitalism. The world had become much more complex than the “good versus evil,” narrative taught to the Baby Boomers in public schools and on TV. It was no longer the USA vs. Hitler. While the communists may have been the bad guys, it was really difficult to imagine Americans as the good guys. This cultural ambiguity was reflected by the cinema of the day, where the American Dream was coded as the rise of a mob family in the Godfather, and the typical American looked a lot more like Travis Bickle than the square-jawed heroes that stormed the Beaches at Normandy.

Into the cultural ambiguity of the middle-1970s stepped George Lukas and Star Wars. With Hitler long dead in his bunker and the scrappy underdog communists having defeated the evil American Empire in Vietnam, the original Star Wars movie took us out of history into outer space, where the simple-minded narrative of good vs. evil could be restored in the form of the rebellion vs. the Empire, and Luke Skywalker, a typical 20-year-old all American farm boy vs. Darth Vader, a terrifying mechanical space wizard dressed up in a black S&M outfit that looked like something out of a photo shoot by Robert Mapplethorpe. Even though the rebels had American accents and the general staff of the empire sounded like sophisticated Eurofags, arguing about who the resistance and who the empire really signify would be a waste of time. As in any multi million dollar Hollywood blockbuster, they represent whoever you want them to be. For conservatives like Ronald Reagan, the “evil empire” were the commies and the resistance the USA USA USA. For liberals, the Empire were the Nazis, and the resistance was the Anglo American Alliance that hit the beaches at Normandy. For leftist radicals, the Empire was the United States, the Resistance the Vietnamese, and the destruction of Alderaan was not the Holocaust, but genocidal American war against the people of Southeast Asia.

One of the reasons for the success of the original Star Wars trilogy, in other words, is that it allowed Americans to turn away from the painful task of confronting their own history, and to live in the fantasy world of their choice. The second reboot of the Star Wars franchise, which begin in 2015 with the J.J. Abrams directed The Force Awakens, coincided with the triumph of identity politics within the American left, what Matthew Yglesias has termed “The Great Awokening.” Over the preceding three decades, where Roger Aisles had built up Fox News into a state of the art Death Star of Neoconservative Propaganda that enabled George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to stage yet another genocidal Vietnam War in Iraq, the American ruling class had decisively smashed any sign of “resistance” on the American left. Yet all through the 2000s and into the early 2010s, there had been “a new hope” in the form of the protest movement against the invasion of Iraq, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter. The financial crash of 2008 had largely de-legitimized Wall Street, and the moral legitimacy of the ruling class that had won such a decisive victory. What’s more, American culture seemed to have run out of steam.

The stage was set, therefore, for the Disney reboot of the original Star Wars franchise, which, unlike the prequels of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which came off as little except vanity projects, would recapture some of the escapist magic of the originals. The would remake the original story where a scrappy group of rebels defeats the diabolical plans of an “evil empire,” only this time, they wouldn’t “center white men.” Even though the original Star Wars trilogy had a perfectly serviceable Jewish heroine in Princess Leia and a perfectly serviceable African American hero in Lando Calrissian, the narrative was still centered on the WASP farm boy played by Mark Hamill. This time it would be different. The hero would be a woman. The cast would be multicultural, diverse and “intersectional.”  It would be a veritable United Nations in outer space.

The problem for “woke” Star Wars, however, was the reactionary cultural thrust of the original. How exactly can you build an “intersectional” house on a foundation made up nostalgia for the good old days and the denial of the American genocide in Vietnam. The battle was fought out on social media. Zoomers, Millennials and late Gen Xers who, unlike those of us born in the 1960s, didn’t get to experience the magic of the original as children, wanted something they couldn’t have, the birth of the simple-minded 1970s blockbuster in the woke 2010s. Cultural radicals, as happy as they were that the new Star Wars featured a female Luke Skywalker, a black hero in the form of Finn and a Hispanic hero in the form of Poe Dameron, didn’t think the reboots were intersectional enough. The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, therefore, added a new character in the form of the Asian Rose Tico and presented us with a now sixty-something Luke Skywalker, still played by Mark Hamill, as a cranky old hipster who wanted nothing more than to give up his white privilege and any pretense of wanting the force to be with him. The result was an incoherent mess, an expensive and badly written trilogy that pleased no-one. Even neoliberal “resistance” liberals and feminists got in on the act, arguing that the backlash against The Last Jedi was coming from none other than the Emperor Palpatine himself, Vladimir Putin.

Specifically, this study examines a collection of tweets relating to a much-publicized fan dispute over the Star Wars franchise film Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. The study finds evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments. The likely objective of these measures is increasing media coverage of the fandom conflict, thereby adding to and further propagating a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society. Persuading voters of this narrative remains a strategic goal for the U.S. alt-right movement, as well as the Russian Federation.

Bombshell is a highly effective, tightly written account of a real life resistance movement in the form of a trio of feminist heroines, Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson and the fictional Kayla Pospisil, bringing down a real life Palpatine, Roger Ailes, and a real life Darth Vader, Bill O’Reilly. Firmly rooted in historical reality it is both entertaining and revealing. Fox News and the American corporate media is terrifying, weird, and weirdly terrifying in a way George Lukas’s evil empire can never be. It contains a realistic and conflicted character in the form of Jess Carr, a lesbian played by Kate McKinnon, who hates Fox and what it stands for, but still wants to keep her job. Where Adam McKay couldn’t lay a glove on Dick Cheney in the 2018 film Vice, Bombshell throws Roger Aisle down the same reactor shaft where Darth Vader tossed the Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. You come out of Bombshell feeling exhilarated and enlightened, reveling in the way Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly humbled Roger Aisles and suddenly aware of the Death Star that had fried the brains of your elderly relatives during the run up to the invasion of Iraq. Bombshell won’t bring back the lives of all the Iraqis killed by George W. Bush. But it does educate us on incestuous relationship between the American far-right and the American corporate media. In spite of the fact that its hero is the awful Megyn Kelly, it’s still a progressive film.

The Rise of Skywalker, on the other hand, might just as well be called “50 Shades of Kylo Ren.” If the Emperor Palpatine resurrected himself as a sick old man instead of a viral 20-something, Rey Skywalker will never have to deal with the painful reality of sucking the bloated old corpse’s dick. Palpatine does in fact have a young, viral alter-ego. Indeed, the Rise of Skywalker gives us a heroine who’s more like Twilight’s Bella Swan than the original Luke Skywalker. If Mark Hamill’s hero’s journey ended with him overcoming the dark father figure, Daisy Ridley’s hero’s journey centers on the eternal American female obsession with the sexy bad boy, with Adam Driver standing in for Twilight’s Robert Pattison. Indeed, I lost count of how many times we had to look at Adam Driver, wearing a padded suit to make himself look taller and more intimidating, walking out of the mists towards Rey carrying a flaming sword. Rey defeats the evil old Emperor Palpatine, but unlike in Bombshell, it’s not as part of a feminist “resistance,” but as the handmaiden of the sexy bad boy who had originally been tasked with killing her. Bombshell went for the jugular, partly because Roger Aisles died in 2017, and unlike Harvey Weinstein, isn’t part of an ongoing criminal trial. Nevertheless, the women who brought Aisles down were anything but leftist radicals. Rather, they were bourgeois white feminists who have no intention of questioning American capitalism or American imperialism. They simply want their own fair share. Kayla Pospisil knows she wants to be on TV. If the Rise of Skywalker is so muddled and so confused it’s because it tries to bury the same reality underneath a layer of escapism. After all, what does Rey really want? The film never really shows how she may have been genuinely tempted by the idea of ruling the universe and diverts the thrust of the narrative into the banal question of “will she fuck the sexy bad boy or won’t she.” But escapism simply isn’t as much fun as it was in the 1970s. It’s forced, focus group tested, and ultimately dull and confusing. The Rise of Skywalker tries to duplicate the original trilogy’s feat of being everything to everybody. It winds up being pretty much nothing to nobody.

It doesn’t mean, however, that the Star Wars franchise is going anywhere. As long as Americans, and other people, refuse to confront historical reality, Disney will continue to make Star War movies and these movies will continue to make money. God help us all.

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