If you're familiar with ancient Egyptian iconography, then you've probably seen the ouroboros. It's a circular image of a serpent or dragon devouring its own tail, and when discussing the ongoing debate over "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," it seems like a fitting metaphor for how the dialogue can evolve from being healthy and constructive to self-indulgent and obsessive.
This isn't to say that the recent review of that movie by Red Letter Media falls into that category. I make that statement as a longtime fan of Red Letter Media, a film and video production company that produces online shows reviewing movies, TV shows, video games and other pop culture products, from classic milestones to arbitrary ephemera. Their work is consistently funny, usually insightful and occasionally brilliant; for instance, I have yet to see a better deconstruction of Adam Sandler movies, and particularly how the supposed funnyman takes advantage of his fans by producing offensively lazy tripe, then their 2011 review of his infamous "Jack and Jill."
Yet when discussing their review for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," the Red Letter Media video that must be brought up for comparison is arguably the most famous one from the website — their 2009 review of the 1999 blockbuster "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace." In addition to being the video that catapulted them to online fame, it also demonstrated how the internet can allow aspiring critics to take advantage of the liberties available to them in cyberspace to offer more thoughtful and detailed critiques. Playing the character of a grotesque, socially isolated old man named Mr. Plinkett, Red Letter Media founder Mike Stoklasa tore apart the narrative emptiness of a film that had been advertised as George Lucas' return to form. As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for IFC in 2010, that review was widely regarded as "a deep-dish analysis packaged like a gonzo stand-up comedy routine — a seven-part, 70-minute dismantling of one film that doubles as an attack on visual excess in the digital age, and the replacement of storytelling with spectacle."
By contrast, the Mr. Plinkett review for "The Last Jedi" (as distinguished from the review they posted when the film was initially released for "Half in the Bag," another one of their shows), is being met with a more mixed response.
Much of this has to do with how the internet community itself has evolved — and in many ways devolved — in the decade since their review of "The Phantom Menace." Aspects of this de-evolution have been ridiculed by Red Letter Media itself, particularly in their running jokes about how easily fans can be manipulated into acting like little more than over-eager consumers ripe for being taken for suckers by corporations that turn out soulless, formulaic dreck (these jokes are also often brilliant). They have also taken shots at online film critics who, instead of offering genuine analysis, wind up mouthing inane talking points which give the impression that they are shilling for the studios or shamelessly pandering to cult-like fan followings.
Yet there is also an issue they tend to shortchange, namely the rise of racist and sexist abuse toward content creators. With "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" specifically, this was evident in how individuals involved in the film were targeted by online harassment, in particular Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose Tico in that movie. Roughly a week before the Plinkett review of "The Last Jedi" dropped, The New York Times published an editorial by Tran in which she made the following observation about the racist and sexist trolls whose harassment eventually drove her off of Instagram:
It wasn’t their words, it’s that I started to believe them.
Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories.
And those words awakened something deep inside me — a feeling I thought I had grown out of. The same feeling I had when at 9, I stopped speaking Vietnamese altogether because I was tired of hearing other kids mock me. Or at 17, when at dinner with my white boyfriend and his family, I ordered a meal in perfect English, to the surprise of the waitress, who exclaimed, “Wow, it’s so cute that you have an exchange student!”
Their words reinforced a narrative I had heard my whole life: that I was “other,” that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough, simply because I wasn’t like them. And that feeling, I realize now, was, and is, shame, a shame for the things that made me different, a shame for the culture from which I came from. And to me, the most disappointing thing was that I felt it at all.
Given the issues raised by Tran in her editorial, it is perhaps unsurprising that The Daily Dot reacted to the Mr. Plinkett "Last Jedi" review by calling it "tone-deaf" or that ScreenRant felt the need to warn its readers that "the video should definitely not be used to bully anyone, especially those who actually worked tirelessly on the film." And it is also worth noting that Red Letter Media, though known for its willingness to satirize anyone and everyone, has displayed something of a conservative streak in its humor, for example by poking fun at labor unions, the Affordable Care Act and "SJWs." Particularly grating was their video "Scientist Man Analyzes Ghostbusters," which attempted to minimize the claims of sexism against the female-cast remake by pointing out how only a minority of the film's critics were motivated by sexism . . . an argument which erroneously assumes that, for the thousands of sexist comments to be an important problem, it would have had to have come from a certain percentage of the commenters.
For the most part, the Red Letter Media review of "The Last Jedi" doesn't contain any of these flaws, aside from a brief cringe-inducing joke about how Laura Dern's character Vice Admiral Holdo "hates men" (it's unclear whether this is intended as a slap at sexist criticisms of the character or a sexist dogwhistle itself). Instead it wisely focuses on the problems with the movie itself, which as I noted in my own review were myriad. This is as it should be, both because it allows Stoklasa to mine humor from the film's flaws — one often gets the sense that the weaknesses he highlights are selected as much for his ability to use them as the basis for jokes as they are because he is genuinely bothered by them — and because, given that Tran was blameless in terms of the film's shortcomings, it doesn't exacerbate the harassment she has faced. While no one deserves to be harassed even if they are responsible for producing a sub-par movie (more on that in a moment), Stoklasa makes it clear that he views "The Last Jedi" not as a political outrage, but as simply being a bad movie.
Yet the review of "The Last Jedi" does contain one major oversight — namely, how it doesn't directly acknowledge that the problem with racist and sexist harassment exists. While a case could be made that addressing such facts head on would have made the review less enjoyable, there is something a tad negligent about stirring the pot about a movie months after its release that has been linked to such vitriol without at least confronting the fact that the bile exists at all. Early in the video, Red Letter Media mentions that the movie is intensely hated online and scrolls through a list of YouTube videos criticizing the film, but implies that all of those criticisms were solely qualitative in nature. Having clicked on some of those videos, I can safely say that many of them were produced by people who — despite their own disingenuous claims to the contrary — clearly disliked the movie because it contained strong female characters like the ones played by Tran and Dern, or because it aimed for a racial diversity that was sorely absent in the original "Star Wars" trilogy.
The closest that the Plinkett review of "The Last Jedi" comes to addressing these issues is at the very end, when it describes how director and writer Rian Johnson seems by most accounts to be a genuinely nice person who wanted to make a good movie. Since their review places most of the blame for the film's problems at Johnson's feet, and since Johnson has also been harassed, this was most likely intended as a way to encourage their fans to take a step back and realize that while it's acceptable to call someone out for making a bad movie, it is another thing entirely to act like they're a bad person altogether. It was a very human moment in their review and, in that regard Stoklasa deserves to be commended.
At the same time, I can't deny that I'm disappointed the review wasn't bolder in taking on the more noxious elements of the online backlash against the movie. What's more, a large part of me hopes that their commentary on "The Last Jedi" will be the final word on the subject. More than eight months have passed since the movie hit theaters, which makes the fact that people are still so obsessed with hating on it at best obnoxious and at worst downright unhealthy. Even Red Letter Media acknowledges that virtually everything negative that can be said about the movie has already been brought up. While their review of "The Last Jedi" is unlikely to become as famous as their review of "The Phantom Menace," and did not achieve the transcendence of their review of "Jack and Jill," it is still an enjoyable watch that dissects the film without feeding into racist and bullying campaigns against the people who made it.
I just hope that the people who obsess over how much they hate "The Last Jedi," if they watch this review, will accept the spirit in which it is intended.