Is all this ‘Last Jedi’ Speculation Good for Us?

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The hype for Star Wars episode VIII is very real, but is it helpful? I’m not one to offer my opinion on what is morally “good” or “right” for society — actually who am I kidding? I totally am — but rather than examining the right-ness of media practices today, or pitching yet another theory on how the internet is turning our brains into mush, I’d rather examine the question from a more practical point of view. As a movie-goer, does all this Star Wars hoopla make my experience better? Worse? SPOILER ALERT…maybe.

Pretty much since the announcement that there would BE an episode VIII, fans — both amateur and professional alike — have been speculating about what it will have in store for us come its December 2017 release. But after Disney announced the episode’s title just a few days ago, the year-long hype train really started chugging: Who is the last Jedi? Is it Luke? Is it Rey? Is it plural? Why the LAST? Does this mean Luke is gonna DIE?! Does this mean Rey is gonna be EVIL!? Will Chewie ever get his medal?? There have been long diatribes on the Nights of Ren, the parentage and sexuality of characters, and the future of the newly awakened force, be it light side, dark side, or the center (see Rebels on Disney XD). There was even a nice deep dive into the history of the use of the color red in Star Wars Logos and its possible significance moving forward. And this is only the beginning, just wait ‘till the first trailer drops!

Here’s what could be bad about that. If you count the release of episode VII as the moment when all this ‘Last Jedi’ speculation began, (and I do) then we’ve been in the midst of speculative hype for this movie for over a year now, and there’s still 10 months to go. By the time any of us get to see this thing we’ll have been speculating about it as a culture for TWO YEARS! That’s over 2,000 times the lengths of the movie! That’s gotta be setting us up for disappointment, right? The more the hype, the less likely it is that any movie could be capable of living up to it.

There is the cynical view of the media cycle around Star Wars. It’s the story of a giant media conglomerate intent on deeply conditioning a public to depend on it’s intellectual property and of the ecosystem of countless publications (this one included) that feeds off this massive conglomerate and creates an economy of speculation and commentary that cycles much like the experience of using a drug. It starts with withdraw, periods of uncomfortable, sometimes exhilarating anticipation, (TOP 100 reasons Star Wars Episode 8 Will Change EVERYTHING) then the elation of actually getting what you want, that peaks in the most extreme high (Is Episode VIII the Best Star Wars Movie EVER?) followed by an inevitable crash (10 reasons Episode VIII isn’t Really that Good!) until the cycle stars again (Top 101 Reasons Episode IX Will Change EVERYTHING!) And this is true in a lot of ways. The title, “The Last Jedi” has no doubt been precisely calculated and focus-grouped to MAKE you speculate. It begs (or rather slyly beckons you) to ask questions. Disney has us right where they want us.

So at its worst, this speculation can be an empty experience, that despite being profitable, can be a detrimental one when it comes to our actual enjoyment of the Star Wars franchise. BUT, there is also the view that sees speculation, not only as a positive practice, but one essential to any story-telling experience.

There is a practice in constructing a story called “Narrative Subversion” which is simply the act of setting up an expectation of how a story is going to go, and then subverting that expectation. At its most visible, narrative subversion can culminate in Keyser Soze/Sixth Sense level twists, but the practice is more pervasive than that. It’s at the edge of every cliffhanger, in the ebb and flow of every well written scene. It’s virtually impossible (at least from a western point of view) to tell a good story with out some form of narrative subversion. The thing about people is we can’t NOT try and figure out where a story is going, and a good story-teller will always take advantage of that. When used correctly, the Star Wars Hype Cycle can deepen the experience of subversion by heightening the experience of expectation. Even with it’s flaws, Episode VII did a good job of giving us sweet fulfillment of expectation, as well as devastating denial of the same expectations, and when they are done right, both are beautiful to behold. This practice of narrative subversion takes on another layer when telling longer stories, especially episodic ones. Star Wars, in many ways, has become the largest and most expensive television series ever made, and any series is at its best when it takes its narrative spacing into account. Where episodes start and end is as much of a narrative choice as any. Asking yourself and each-other what is going to happen is a part of the story. The time spent in between the episodes can hold just as much meaning as the episodes themselves.

So, like anything, this whole situation is complicated, and at the end of the day, while it can be frustrating to absolve media of responsibility, you can get as much or as little out of all the Star Wars Hype as you like. But do so with intent. I guess my prescription is “take as needed.”

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