And the twist is not that the new movie will make a fortune this week no matter what reviewers or the more rabid fringe of the fan base say. That is entirely predictable.
The survey was 441 people recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk before and after they saw the last episode in the popular franchise, Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi in 2017. The journal topic was how their expectations prior to seeing it affected their actual enjoyment of the movie. The choices were a simple seven-point scale, but they showed about what anyone with knowledge of human nature expects; if you expect to love it, you are probably going to be disappointed. But more interesting was that if you expected to be really disappointed, and loved it, you still loved it less than people who had little expectation at all but loved it.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker trailer. Credit: Disney
Make sense? It's all due to our inability to predict our feelings about what might happen in the future, much like when someone says if they had a million dollars they'd be happy, but end up being just as miserable as if they hadn't spent $45,000 on a new Cadillac XT6.
We are really bad at predicting how future events will make us feel
It turns out that when it comes to movies, people are as unreliable as they are when it comes to other experiences. We're really inaccurate at predicting how future events will make us feel. And that was the case here. Over 50 percent got wrong how they expected to feel, even though they did the predicting.
I grew up during the "Star Wars" craze but I don't have any zeal for it. I did when it came out, but I had built it up in my mind due to cards and comics about it. I was in a poor family living in the country and we never went to the theater so I hadn't actually seen it. But by the time "The Empire Strikes Back" came out I was 15 and a friend's parents drove us to the theater.
I was also a more experienced reader and storyteller, and that framed how I viewed the sequel.
I knew the "Star Wars" story even though I hadn't seen the film and I thought it had a central metaphor - criticism of the the military-industrial complex created by a scientific-technological elite.(1) Vader was instead a villain who had mastered the Force, a Husserl-ian matrix binding the universe (this was before Lucas decided the Force was only for gifted genetic elites in the prequels) and he was doing bad things with it, like you can any tool, for some unknown reason. I thought that in "The Empire Strikes Back" for Darth Vader to use his mind tricks to convince Luke Skywalker he was his son, when Kenobi had already told him Vader killed his father, was a clever way to undermine someone with a lot of potential who could still be groomed to whatever this secret agenda is.
The original movie worked because there were a lot of blanks to fill with our minds. Having those questions answered was bound to be disappointing but how much you expected perfect storytelling impacted your ability to enjoy them at all.
After the wonderful opening in
With later movies I expected nothing of him, or J.J. Abrams or Rian Johnson. I didn't care enough so I could just like or dislike the films on their merits. The survey results show that is the best place to be. People who expected the most, the biggest fans, reported the least enjoyment. No surprise there. The strange result is that people who expected to be disappointed and loved it still enjoyed it a lot less than people who didn't expect anything at all and loved it.
I was shocked when I heard how much criticism "The Last Jedi" got, just like I am shocked at how much criticism this latest one is getting. People who didn't expect much, like me, enjoyed both while even people who were expecting to be disappointed and found they liked it still weren't happy.
"The negative bias going in dragged them down and even if they were pleasantly surprised by the movie, they still didn't like it as much as other people did," says communications academic James Alex Bonus, co-author of the study from The Ohio State University. "It becomes a lot less about what is in the movie and a lot more about what you expected it to be."
Our own feelings are not an accurate indicator, but nostalgia is
What might explain why people keep going? The same psychological force that keeps people going back after there are bad James Bond movies; nostalgia. "Men In Black" or "Charlie's Angels" or "Ghostbusters" are not doomed as properties because of disappointing recent results, they will simply struggle because they depleted the nostalgia bank at a time when those properties hadn't gotten over the Nostalgia Curve - that point when you have survived so long that people will go for nostalgia, like with Indiana Jones. With "Ghostbusters", the next film will have to survive on merit because "Ghostbusters II" and the 2016 reboot depleted the nostalgia bank, while Marvel has accrued a whole lot for its films.
Once you crest the nostalgia threshold, it won't matter if you put out a film like "Thor: The Dark World" or "Solo", people will continue to buy tickets.
The results showed that respondents own forecasted nostalgia was a better link to whether or not participants saw the movie to a greater degree than whether or not they expected to love it or hate it. Enjoyment was also higher among those who felt more nostalgia while appreciation were lower among participants who experienced less happiness and nostalgia than they forecasted.
So go because it's the last time you'll get to see Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford in their signature roles, not because it will ruin or reinforce your childhood memories of films that honestly weren't that great. Thirty years from now people may be nostalgic about Palpatine.
Well, maybe it isn't even the last of Fisher and Ford and Hamill. In comic books and now film, technology can insure no one is ever really done.
(1) Obviously at 15 I didn't know it in those terms but later command of history lets you see how Eisenhower's 1960 speech expressing concern about both the military-industrial complex and the scientific-technological elite that government funding was selecting for with government grants in academia was the talk of progressive intelligentsia during the early years of the George Lucas career. Oddly, he veered into alliance with that in the next trilogy, as progressives had gained control of both government and academia. The Jedi worked for the government and are biologically gifted. No more alternative religion. Obviously that debunks the first movie. Few "believed" in The Force in the first movie but the prequels showed that a generation earlier people with light sabers had been throwing machinery around using telekinesis so it seems strange that anyone ever had a doubt it was "real" and not just religion.
(2) In my mind, predictably, "Star Wars" is still the best and "The Empire Strikes Back" is still second because I can compartmentalize my expectations. I am able to watch it as I did at age 15, when I still thought Vader was a supervillain and not a puppet of some guy in a hoodie. And viewed from that perspective "The Last Jedi" was clever. The heroine was not part of the same tired tiny universe, the Force was back to being something that binds us all rather than the Manna of elites; both a janitor and a junk trader could master it.
The Force was free market capitalism wrought physical; available for everyone willing to learn how to use it. Some will do good and some will do evil. You didn't have to be born "rich" in the weird 1990s neo-eugenics universe George Lucas any more. You didn't need Vader's very expensive helmet to fetishize the way the new villain had because nobodies could use light sabers too. All you needed was to believe.