Hollywood feminism and the decline of cinema

February 17, 2016 | Web First
Vic Thiessen | Special to Canadian Mennonite

Star Wars (the original by George Lucas) arrived in Winnipeg in the early summer of 1977. I went to the first screening of the day (around noon) and was so blown away by what I saw and heard (the score, not the banal dialogue) that I stayed in the theatre for four successive viewings, something I had never done before and would never do again.

The first half of the film, which featured Alec Guinness (one of my favourite actors), was, for me, pure magic, the perfect epic sci-fi adventure and the perfect enactment of Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey, something which clearly resonated with me at that time in my life.

Thirty-eight year later, we are treated to J.J. Abrams’ version of the original classic (as if classics ever need to be remade, though the new film does provide much improved acting and dialogue). The lack of originality and imagination in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) left me dumbfounded. When the new version of the death star (called Starkiller) was introduced, my jaw fell to my lap and I couldn’t stop shaking my head. And yet this inferior remake has become the second-highest-grossing film of all time, which is why I have come to despair about the future of cinema.

While the lack of originality is the primary flaw of The Force Awakens, there are many other flaws, including:

  • The overwhelming amount of PG-rated violence (the worst kind), especially the shooting
  • The utter implausibility of the destruction of the Starkiller (yet again)
  • Lacklustre cinematography and score
  • Finn (stormtrooper turned good guy) having no trouble shooting at the enemy once he knows who the real enemy is, namely his former colleagues.

However, there are two features of The Force Awakens which disturb me more than these flaws. The first of these is the reaction (or lack thereof) when the Starkiller instantly wipes out the central planetary system of the Republic, killing billions of people. That inconceivably horrific act should have been greeted by our heroes with cries of anguish and despair beyond imagining, and it should have haunted them (left them devastated) for every moment that followed. At the least, we should have seen the kind of pain and sorrow expressed by Obi-Wan Kenobi when he sensed that millions of people suddenly perished when the original Death Star destroyed Alderaan. Instead, there is almost no reaction at all and the whole unfortunate matter is soon forgotten, as if it isn’t 9/11 multiplied by a staggering twenty million times.

I assumed the destruction of the Republic was a way of fuelling the revenge-motivated finale, but it has been suggested by insiders that the filmmakers had to get rid of the Republic (introduced in the Star Wars prequels) because it didn’t fit into their plans for the new Star Wars universe, so they decided to simply wipe it out entirely with no fuss or muss. If true, such a decision is cynical verging on crass, though apparently few people noticed, since the vast majority of viewers seemed to take the death of billions of people in stride. Has our desensitization to screen violence and death come so far that we are not deeply troubled by such scenes?

The other disturbing element in The Force Awakens is the same element that disturbed me most about Mad Max: Fury Road (though the primary reason I dislike the latter film is the endless violent car-chase action). That these sci-fi films feature women in the lead roles is a cause for celebration, but I humbly (as a man) suggest that the actions of these female protagonists actually undermine radical feminism.

The character of Rey is one of the things I like most about The Force Awakens. It’s great to have a young woman in the Luke Skywalker role, especially a woman as strong, intelligent, skilled and compassionate as Rey. (I also appreciated Maz, the female version of Yoda.) Unfortunately, as with the women in Mad Max, Rey ultimately reveals her strength through her ability to fight and kill as well as any man, suggesting that being violent is a way women can gain equality with men.

By contrast, feminists like Grace Jantzen and Dorothee Söelle (and the women in my family) not only call for gender equality but question the very legitimacy of some typical masculine virtues like toughness, honour, retributive justice and a willingness to kill in combat. Following their lead, rather than celebrating films that show how women can embody typical masculine virtues, I applaud films that show how men can be as compassionate, merciful, nurturing, peaceful, sensitive and caring as women. Female leaders like Rey could be teaching men that there are other ways to handle conflict and challenge evil and oppression than through violence.

As a lifelong film buff, I have observed with dismay how Hollywood has increasingly been willing to sell its soul to the almighty dollar, the almighty opening weekend and the almighty blockbuster. Above all, this has led to a greater emphasis on mindless action (with lots of PG violence) and special effects, at the expense of an intelligent and imaginative plot. That The Force Awakens could become the second-highest-grossing film of all time (not to mention the merchandising, which is another essay) means that Hollywood will continue to give us more of the same.

I became a film critic because I believe in the power of this most-popular entertainment medium to help make us better people and to help make the world a better place. There are countless films out there which can do this. And so now I turn my attention almost exclusively to independent films and foreign films, where thought-provoking deeply-moving stories can still be found in abundance.

Unfortunately, most people are content to watch Hollywood films that promote and perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence, dehumanize the enemy and desensitize us to the violence in our world, even as they (along with TV and the news media) show us a world far more violent than the one that we have. As a result, the decline of film and feminism hinders the development of a planet where all life might flourish.

A shorter version of this review will appear in the Feb. 29, 2016, print edition of Canadian Mennonite.

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